Fascinating lists!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Value of Literature

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Fiction begins with empathy, as a writer imagines what it would be like to be another individual. He or she puts him- or herself into another person’s shoes, except that, of course, the person is a literary character, rather than a flesh-and-blood man, woman, or child, whom the writer creates. The process works in reverse, too--or is claimed to do so: readers, identifying with literary characters, experience and understand life from these figures’ points of view. For this reason, literature is said to broaden and to deepen human experience.

Since the behavior of fictional characters models that of actual human beings, fiction provides the potential for making ethical decisions and statements about human behavior in general; it allows readers to assess, evaluate, and judge whether a character’s conduct is moral and beneficial or immoral and disadvantageous to him or her and to others, including society in general. Indeed, fiction can be--or has been, at least--a means of transmitting values to present and future generations and societies, as, for example, Beowulf did and as the Bible continues to do for many.

In previous posts, we have considered the types of values that horror fiction conveys. It shows what writers consider to be wrong, or evil, and it demonstrates, through the behavior of the protagonist, how such wickedness can be resisted or overcome, indicating, in the process, that terrible and horrific experiences, including the loss of life and limb, can be endured and that the truly important things in life have nothing to do with such petty pursuits as power, fame, and fortune.

Can the assertions that literature makes--the themes of stories--be proven to be true or false, as a scientist, for example, can demonstrate the truth of the theory that some microorganisms cause disease or that the bonding of oxygen and hydrogen molecules results in the substance we call “water”? No. Are such claims without value, then?

Sigmund Freud

Until relatively recently, Sigmund Freud’s theory of human personality and behavior, psychoanalysis, was not only the predominant school of thought in this domain, but it was the domain, or, to use a different metaphor, it was the only game in town. Carl Jung’s psychology, like that of Alfred Adler’s, Erik Ericson’s, Ernest Jones’, Karen Horney’s, Jacques Lacan’s, Otto Rank’s, Erich Fromm’s, and others in the fold, were mere variations of Freud’s thought. Psychoanalysis was psychology.


Karl Popper

It was not until Karl Popper and other critics asked Freud, as it were, to set his theory’s superego, ego, and id upon the examination table, the better to see and feel, taste and touch, smell and measure them, that psychoanalysis lost its devotees. It was considered unscientific because it consisted of ideas which, by definition, cannot be measured or quantified and, therefore, cannot be empirically verified. In other words, it was a myth, not a science.

Besides the triune composition of personality that Freud posited, other of his ideas were also found to be unscientific and suspect, such as his theory of psychosexual development as being comprised of discreet stages (oral, anal, Oedipal, and genital) and his view of the existence of an “unconscious mind.” His much-vaunted “talking cure” and his attributing all behavioral disorders to unresolved sexual problems related to childhood also came under serious attack, chiefly by feminists, who regard Freudian thought and, in particular, his references to “penis envy” and to women as wannabe men, as highly sexist and offensive. Once the end-all and the be-all of psychology, psychoanalysis took on the appearance of being little more than a modern version of ancient shamanism, with its practitioners considered more witchdoctors than scientists.

How is this related to the value of literature? The themes that literature expresses are of the same type as those which psychoanalysis makes--that is, they are speculative, not scientific; they cannot be quantified or verified. They cannot be scientifically proven or disproved. If, therefore, psychoanalysis is without value, literature would also seem to be without value, for the same reasons.

Martin Heidegger

Those who believe that literature, including, for example, philosophical and religious texts, does have some kind of value have had to reevaluate the matter. Many, in doing so, adopt a position akin to that of the existential philosopher Martin Heidegger, who argues that literature is not about the objective, measurable world of nature, but is, rather, about the inner man or woman.

In short, literary texts are about human experience, as it is understood consciously, by the person him- or herself, and, since people do not exist in a vacuum, but are products of their cultures and societies, literature also provides insights into the nature of such traditions and social groups. Moreover, literature is a means by which authors and readers may share such experiences and it is, as such, a sort of glue that helps to cement individuals and societies together and to suggest personal and social meanings for them that science, by nature, cannot suggest.

Since most other disciplines, scientific and otherwise, impinge upon literature (or literature impinges upon them), it creates a complex network of interrelated ideas which enriches the discussion of the artistic, moral, social, legal, philosophical, political, religious, and theological questions that literature often raises. Although many of these other domains are as unscientific as literature itself, they have value for the same reason that literature does: they unite human beings through shared experience. Men and women are more than natural objects among a world of other things. They are conscious. They think and feel, believe and desire, hope and strive. Science’s importance, notwithstanding, science has little to do with any of these subjective expressions and functions of the human soul.


Soren Kierkegaard

Science may tell us what is, but it cannot tell us what should be, any more than it can tell us how what is feels or how we should think or feel about reality. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said that, although, in principle, through science, the universe is known, he himself is left over, as “an unscientific postscript.” The domain of philosophy, religion, and literature in general, including horror fiction, is that of the “leftover” self, and these domains are about sharing the self with the other selves of the world. As long as people believe that they themselves and others have value and that their experience matters, literature and its themes will continue to have value as well.

Besides, literature can be pretty entertaining.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Revisiting the Numinous

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Through images and emblems associated with a vanished craft or practice, a writer of fantasy or horror fiction can, as it were, visit another, mystical and magical world. Such a trip can help him or her to envision, and, therefore, to create an otherworldly setting in which to place historical, fantastic, or horrific characters who, as the mad scientists of their day, ply secret trades.There are several sources of such images and symbols, including alchemy, demonology, Gnosticism, heraldry, Masonry, Rosicrucianism, and various Tarot decks. Links to some of these sources are included at the end of this post, for those who are inclined to step, as it were, into a different time, when a vastly different, pre-scientific mindset held sway.

This article discusses alchemy’s imagery in general. However, much of what is said could apply to any other occult enterprise.


Images of alchemy capture the romance of a medieval enterprise, wherein adepts sought to transmute base metals into gold. Quaint laboratories, equipped with preposterous apparatuses of all kinds, including furnaces and forges, kilns and fireplaces, both with and without chimneys; stocked with flasks and beakers, bottles and vials; and operated by men in rich capes and robes, recreate a world--and a worldview--that is now long gone.


Woodcuts carved with figures and symbols similar to those of the Masons or those on Tarot decks also romanticize the practice: the hermaphrodite, the dragon, the bare-breasted Gorgon, the demon, the angel, the caduceus, the serpent, the lion, the microcosm and the macrocosm, Artemis with her tiers of supernumerary breasts, personified suns and moons, and hundreds of other images as bizarre and wonderful are catalogued in groups as fanciful as they are fascinating, suggesting secrets long forgotten if, indeed, they were ever really known. These emblems, like the fully equipped and functional laboratories, suggest the popularity of the craft and the devotion to which its practitioners practiced it.

Viewing such images, it is almost impossible not to see the appeal that alchemy had, promising gold, promising moral and spiritual perfection, promising the otherworldliness of both fabulous wealth and spiritual wellbeing, and promising a wonderful and magical, if laborious, time of it along the way. Alchemy promised a better world, both internally and externally, if one persevered, worked hard, and stayed dedicated to the task at hand. It did deliver, of course, on both its pledges, but not the way alchemists believed it would; it gave us chemistry, instead of lead’s magically becoming gold.

It also influenced literature, along the way. According to David Meakin’s Hermetic Fictions: Alchemy and Irony in the Novel, alchemy is featured in such novels as those by Emile Zola, Jules Verne, Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, James Joyce, Gustav Meyrink, Lindsay Clarke, Marguerite Yourcenar, Umberto Eco, and Michel Butor. Some believe that L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz might also be predicated upon alchemy.

Familiarizing oneself with such an outmoded and, indeed, long abandoned, view of the world, both physical and metaphysical, renews one’s appreciation of the modern world, reminding us that our own systems of knowledge and belief have not been the only ones people have embraced and that, indeed, ours may, one day, seem quite as quaint as those we’ve left behind. If one can recreate a sense of the reality in which alchemists (or any other esoteric group) believed in his or her story, when it is appropriate to do so, he or she will, in doing so, have already escorted the reader into another, enchanted world.

But becoming acquainted with alchemy--or demonology, Gnosticism, heraldry, Masonry, Rosicrucianism, or various Tarot decks--also pays other dividends to writers of historical romances, fantasy, or horror. Mostly, these benefits are intangible, but they are no less genuine for that. Revisiting the past, to see the world as it was seen in a time antecedent to our own, helps us to get a sense of what Meakin calls “the sacredness of the living Mother-Earth, in whose womb minerals grow and mature like embryos” (15).

What’s more, according to Carl Jung, steeping oneself in the images and ideas, the attitudes and beliefs, the symbols and concerns of such an enterprise can help to generate a sense of the mysterious, or even the eerie and the sublime. “Any prolonged preoccupation with an unknown object,” Jung says, “acts as an almost irresistible bait for the unconscious to project itself into the unknown nature of the object” (quoted in Hermetic Fictions, 19). Meakin adds, “The alchemical penchant for contradictory images serves to intensify this sense of amazement” (19).

Surely, this is similar to what little girls do in investing their dolls with their own thoughts and emotions in order to give to these inanimate objects, as it were, a bit of personality and life. As children, we are adept at such projections of the self onto external objects, but, as adults, many of us tend to become less adept at doing so, or to forget altogether how to do so (unless, perhaps, we are alone on a dark road or in a cemetery at night). Moreover, such projection recreates the intent of the alchemist himself, for, as Meakin observes, “to project life into things is to invest them with magic” (19).

None of us is intelligible in and of ourselves, but we must seek to explain ourselves in terms of external things, by projecting ourselves onto the objects of the environment, and thereby incarnating the world, as it were, a process which would seem to be have been the origin of pantheism. We spiritualize the world, making it a fellow to ourselves. Then, we use it to explain our own thoughts, feelings, and actions. In doing so, the horror writer, seeing the monster within, projects his or her own, inner demons upon cloud, mountain, forest, plain, desert, or sea. These phantasms then, in turn, return, as it were, to haunt us. The horrors that haunt the dark roadway or the nighttime cemetery haunt these places only because they haunt us.

According to Meakin, alchemy is especially adept as a means by which we can project ourselves onto the cosmos, because it is open not only to the objective world, but it is also open to other “symbolic systems” of thought and belief; its “archetypal centrality,” he says, “is reflected in the breadth of diffusion, the adaptability of alchemical doctrine, and its power to annex other doctrines and symbolic systems: its essential syncretism, in short” (21).

Christianity has proven at least equally adaptable, if less syncretistic, as many have observed, including Camille Paglia, who writes, in Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson: “Christianity has made adjustment after adjustment, ingeniously absorbing its opposition. . . and diluting its dogma to change with changing times” (25). Any great system, past or present, must have this capability, if it is to not only survive but also thrive. Paglia believes that Christianity is in peril, due to “the rebirth of the gods in the massive idolatries of popular culture,” so much so that it is “facing its most serious challenge since Europe’s confrontation with Islam in the Middle Ages” (25). Christianity seems likely to survive this “challenge,” as it survived that of its encounter with Islam (a “confrontation” that has arisen anew in our own time), in which case it will continue to inspire art, including horror fiction.

However, Christianity lacks the dynamic, numinous character that it had for the Swedes, Danes, Anglo-Saxons, and other Germanic and European worshipers of the Norse deities who were, in their time, as Beowulf suggests to us, themselves confronting the church’s faith during the early Middle Ages. To them, Christianity must have seemed as awesome and strange as alchemy might to modern men and women who acquaint themselves with alchemists’ strange and, indeed, astonishing beliefs, thoughts, hopes, fears, and feelings.

In other words, alchemy (or, again, any other esoteric tradition, especially if it is distanced by time as well as by doctrine) can help the writer of historical romances, fantasy, or horror regain a sense of the numinous, of the uncanny, of the eerie, of the sublime, thereby enriching his or her own bizarre, perhaps supernatural, fictional worlds, much as C. S. Lewis, in his coming to the Christian faith, like Beowulf’s readers, from the pagan world, saw, in the cold Northern wastes of Teutonic mythology, the shadow of joy he was to experience more fully in “mere Christianity,” enriched the world of Narnia or J. R. R. Tolkien enriched the world of Middle-earth.

For those who’d like to visit such a world, here are a few links that will take you there:


Bon voyage!


Sources

Meakin, David. Hermetic Fictions: Alchemy and Irony in the Novel. Bodmin, England: Keele University Press, 1995.

Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. Print.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Man Overboard: Questioning Nature and Its Creator

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

It is not generally known, but Sir Winston Churchill, the prime minister of Great Britain during World War II, not only painted landscapes and other paintings, but he also wrote short stories, one of which, “Man Overboard” (1899), is the subject of this post.



Sir Winston Churchill

The story is similar, in some ways, to Stephen Crane’s short story, “The Open Boat,” and to the 2003 film Open Water. Perhaps we shall consider these other stories in future articles.


Churchill’s first short story, “The Open Boat,” appeared in this magazine.

In “Man Overboard,” the anonymous protagonist falls overboard from a “mail steamer” that is sailing east through the Red Sea. It is “a little after half-past nine,” the omniscient narrator informs us, “when the man fell overboard.” He’d left the ship’s “companion-house,” where a concert was in progress, to “smoke a cigarette and enjoy a breath of the wind,” when, leaning back upon a railing which gave way, he “fell backwards into the warm water of the sea amid a great splash.”

The story’s second paragraph describes sights, sounds, and tactile sensations that could be discerned from either the deck or the sea itself, and is, therefore, ambiguous as to the man’s whereabouts. Is he still aboard at this time or has he already fallen overboard? The story shifts back and forth, between the interior and the deck of the ship and the water:
The night was clear, though the moon was hidden behind clouds. The warm air was laden with moisture. The still surface of the waters was broken by the movement of the great ship, from whose quarter the long, slanting undulations struck out like feathers from an arrow shaft, and in whose wake the froth and air bubbles churned up by the propellers trailed in a narrowing line to the darkness of the horizon.
The painter’s eye is discernable in the writer’s imagery; Churchill paints a clear picture, terrible in its simplicity. This paragraph is an example of something that literature can do that would be difficult, if not impossible, for film to accomplish. Its ambiguity provides a double perspective, allowing the reader to see and hear and feel the sky, the air, and the water both from the ship and from the sea at the same time. These shifts between the cozy comfort of the ship and “the blackness of the waters” heightens the horror of the story, producing uncertainty as to the man’s location and representing both the possibility of his safety as well as that of his peril.

Although his fall produces “a great splash,” the noise is not enough, over the distance and the sound of the musical instruments, to be heard, and the concert to which he’d been listening, mere moments ago, with pleasure now becomes something of a mocking and terrible reminder of his separation from the ship and its passengers and crew. Separated from the group, he is all alone in the sea. His absence goes unnoticed as the band plays “a lively tune,” the first verse of which is, rather ominously, “accompanied” by “the measure pulsations of the screw,” or ship’s propeller.

Churchill employs the passive voice throughout much of his story, an unusual technique, which heightens the impersonal character of the sea and the shock of the protagonist who has fallen overboard. His actions are automatic, desperate, and “inarticulate.” His terror has robbed him of his ability to think or to speak in an articulate fashion:
For a moment he was physically too much astonished to think. Then he realised he must shout. He began to do this even before he rose to the surface. He achieved a hoarse, inarticulate, half-choked scream. A startled brain suggested the word, “Help!” and he bawled this out lustily and with frantic effort six or seven times without stopping. Then he listened.
He listens, but he hears only the chorus of the song that the ship’s distant passengers and crew sing, their very singing proof that they are as unaware of the man overboard as if he didn’t exist.
Nor does the sea respond to his desperate cries for help. Nature has no heart, no mind, no soul; it is utterly indifferent, so to speak, to the fate of the man overboard, and he is more acted upon, both by nature and his own instinctive drives, than he is active. Free will means little when one is alone in an impersonal ocean.

Technology, as represented by the mail steamer--a ship that carries human correspondence, representing connection and communication among men and women--is of no avail in the world of nature. The narrator, stripped, as it were, of humanity’s technological capabilities and armor, is mere flotsam, no better or more valuable than any other detritus afloat upon the seas. Men may value themselves and one another; the sea, a synecdoche of nature as a whole, does not, a theme that “The Open Boat” and Open Water share with Churchill’s story and which is well expressed by Crane in a short poem, “A Man Said to the Universe,” that could stand as the epigraph to any of these stories:
A man said to the universe:
"Sir I exist!"
However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation."
As the ship continues to steam away from the man, the music and the vessel’s lights dim, the ship seeming to get smaller and smaller in the distance, heightening the horror of the protagonist's situation and the terror he feels, even as the increasing silence and the lengthening gap emphasizes his aloneness, his vulnerability, and his desperation:
The chorus floated back to him across the smooth water for the ship had already completely passed by. And as he heard the music a long stab of terror drove through his heart. The possibility that he would not be picked up dawned for the first time in his consciousness.
As he hears, again, the chorus, he screams again for help, “now in desperate fear,” only to hear, as if it is mocking him, the chorus’ refrain, its “last words drawled out fainter and fainter.”

The instinct for self-preservation is strong within him--at first; however, his desire to live soon weakens as, after setting “out to swim after it [the ship] with furious energy, pausing every dozen strokes to shout long wild shouts,” he stops, as “full realisation” comes to him that he is “alone--abandoned.” This “understanding” of his predicament, the narrator remarks, causes his brain to reel, and he has a second burst of determination to save himself, praying, this time, rather than shouting. Instead of depending upon his fellow human beings for assistance, he has turned to God, pleading for divine assistance.

Almost immediately, as if Churchill intends his story’s theme to be that God helps those who ask for his help, after the steamer’s having become nothing more than “a single fading light on the blackness of the waters and a dark shadow against the paler sky,” the ship seems to stop so that it might return. His prayer, it seems, has been answered. God, it appears, has heard him, and “a surge of joy and hope” flashes “through his mind” as he gives thanks to the deity.

A moment later, his hopes are dashed, and he despairs as he sees the ship’s light become “gradually but steadily smaller,” and, where, before, he’d given voice to his gratitude, he now curses his fate: “Beating the water with his arms, he raved impotently. Foul oaths burst from him, as broken as his prayers--and as unheeded.” It seems clear that, whether he pleas for deliverance, gives thanks, or curses God, neither nature nor its Creator hear or respond. They are as indifferent to his gratitude as they are to his need and his thanksgiving. As he becomes exhausted, his “passion” gives way to “fear,” and after only “twenty minutes” have “passed,” he resigns to his fate. Rather than attempt to “swim all the way to Suez,” he decides to drown, and he throws “up his hands impulsively,” sinking, only to find that his instinct to survive takes over, preventing him from committing suicide:
Down, down he went through the warm water. The physical death took hold of him and he began to drown. The pain of that savage grip recalled his anger. He fought with it furiously. Striking out with his arms and legs he sought to get back to the air. It was a hard struggle, but he escaped victorious and gasping to the surface.
He has fought the sea and won. Nature has been vanquished. Even without God’s help, he has managed to escape the “savage grip” of “physical death,” but his is a short-lived, hollow victory, for, as he bursts through the surface of the water, “despair awaited him.” He realizes that it is futile for him to struggle, that his fate is sealed. He pleads, once more, to God, praying, “Let me die.”

The narrator describes the appearance of a shark, a maritime angel of death, as it were, as beautiful and awesome as any other terrible messenger of God. The creature’s beauty seems, from a human perspective, incongruous and inappropriate, but the story is being told from the omnipotent point of view, as if it were God himself who tells the tale of the man overboard, and human attitudes are irrelevant. As the moon drifts out from the cover of the night’s cloud, symbolizing divine revelation, an epiphany occurs, for the reader, if not for the man overboard, courtesy of the narrator’s concluding observation concerning the significance of the shark’s appearance:

The moon, then in her third quarter, pushed out from the concealing clouds and shed a pale, soft glimmer upon the sea. Upright in the water, fifty yards away,was a black triangular object. It was a fin. It approached him slowly.

His last appeal had been answered.

Significantly, it is the man’s “last appeal” that has “been answered.” He had made an earlier appeal, praying that God would deliver him, but those pleas had fallen, as it were, upon deaf ears. Only his prayer that he be allowed to die is answered. He will be allowed to die, but not by drowning. Instead, he will be ripped apart, alive, and devoured. The moon, shedding the light of revelation, as it were, upon this final incident of the story, suggests that, if God is not altogether indifferent to man’s fate, he is, if anything, a sadist.

Just as the ship is a synecdoche for technology; music, for art and the pleasures it brings; the mail, for human contact and communication; and the sea, for nature itself, the anonymous man is a synecdoche for humanity itself. Not only is the nameless, faceless man of the story alone and abandoned by God in an uncaring and impersonal universe which is equally indifferent to the man’s happiness and welfare, but, in him, all humanity is overboard, awash in a sea of cosmic unconcern and disregard.

Is the tone of the story (and, therefore, of the narrator’s final observation, that “his last appeal had been answered”) sincere, ironic, or cynical? There is some ambiguity in the story’s wording, as there is in its structure and its incidents--and enough uncertainty, perhaps, to make all three interpretations of the tone possibilities. The answer to the question of whether the tone is ultimately sincere, ironic, or cynical is up to each reader to decide, and his or her answer will be determined by the views that he or she holds concerning nature and its Creator.

The Christian might consider the shark’s appearance, in answer to the man’s prayer that he be allowed to die, to be a sincere response on the part of God; the Deist might suppose the shark’s appearance to be mere coincidence, since God, although he exists and did create the universe, takes no current interest in his creation; the atheist might consider the shark’s appearance also a matter of nothing more than mere blind chance, since there is no God to hear or respond to the man’s--or anyone else’s--prayer.

The story is marvelously short, just as it is marvelously uncanny. Despite its brevity, it presents amazingly complex questions concerning the character of nature, the problem of evil, and the nature of God. Although one opinion concerning the story’s tone and the narrator’s final observation may seem more likely than others, each remains a possibility, and God may not be the sadist he at first appears to be. Death by shark would be horrible, to be certain, but would drowning be any quicker, more merciful, or dignified? On the other hand, if God exists, maybe he is as capricious and even as sadistic as the story can be interpreted to imply. For that matter, why did the man fall overboard?

To universalize the question, we might ask, instead, Why did humanity, in the Garden of Eden, take a similar fall? Is there a grace behind both “falls,” discernable only to the eye of faith, as Job suggests? Is the fall overboard a test of one’s trust in God, even when one faces his own mortality? Is the story a repudiation of the very idea of a merciful and loving God? Is he, instead, merely just and inscrutable? Does he exist at all?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Dean Koontz’s Techniques for Engaging Readers and Advancing Plots

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman


In a previous post, we discussed Dean Koontz’s plot formula. In this article, we will address the techniques by which he engages his readers and moves his plots along.

He writes newspaper-short paragraphs, many of them consisting of but a single sentence. Often, his style is journalistic, too, more craft than art. Here’s an example, from The Darkest Evening of the Year, the equivalent of which can be found in virtually any of his many novels:

Amy Redwing did not know her origins. Abandoned at the age of two, she had no memory of her mother and father.

She had been left in a church, her name pinned to her shirt. A nun had found her sleeping on a pew.

Most likely, her surname had been invented to mislead. The police had failed to trace it to anyone.

Redwing suggested a Native American heritage. Raven hair and dark eyes argued Cherokee, but her ancestors might as likely have come from Armenia or Sicily, or Spain.

Amy’s history remained incomplete, but the lack of roots did not set her free. She was chained to some ringbolt set in the stone of a distant year (3 - 4).
Koontz’s protagonist, who is usually a young woman, has been traumatized in the past, and the pain and suffering she has experienced, whether physical, mental, sexual, or all of these forms of abuse, continue to haunt her and to affect her behavior on the present. For example, having been abused by a male, she may fear and distrust men. However, something--often an endangered child--will empower her to face a new, similar threat, thereby overcoming the effects of the past trauma and entering upon a journey to wholeness. Often, in the process, she will be befriended by a knight in shining armor, as it were, who will assist her and with whom she will fall in love. Almost all of Koontz’s mature work involves both a rescue, both of and by, and a romance on the part of, a damsel in psychological distress.

Koontz also employs both wit and humor, especially in repartee between couples, to sustain interest as he both kills time, so to speak, between significant events and provides necessary expository information, as this sequence of dialogue, also from The Darkest Evening of the Year, indicates:
“I love October,” she said, looking away from the street. “Don’t you love October?”

“This is still September.”

“I can love October in September. September doesn’t care.”

“Watch where you’re going.”

“I love San Francisco, but it’s hundreds of miles away.”

“The way you’re driving, we’ll be there in ten minutes.”

“I’m a superb driver. No accidents, no traffic citations.”

He said, “My entire life keeps flashing before my eyes.”

“You should make an appointment with an ophthalmologist” (4).
Unusual characters, especially antagonists, are another means by which Koontz generates, maintains, and, occasionally, heightens readers’ interest. Most of his books contain at least one such character; several contain two or more of them. The Darkest Evening of the Year contains several eccentric villains, including Moongirl and Harrow and Vanessa. “Moongirl,” readers learn, “will make love only in total darkness,” believing “that her life has been forever diminished by passion in the light, when she was younger” (34). However, after having sex, she “wants. . . to be in the light” and occasionally “goes outside half clothed or even naked” to stand “with her face turned to the sky, her mouth open, as if inviting the light to fill her” (46). She fears boredom, because it makes her aware of the external world, and she stays busy to avoid such an experience, sometimes by committing acts of arson with her boyfriend, Harrow. Both she and Harrow have unusually high pain thresholds:
Harrow has seen her hold. . . a rose so tightly by its thorny stem that her hands drip blood.

Her pain threshold, like his, is high. She does not enjoy the prick of the rose; she simply does not feel it (35).
Despite her mental state, the omniscient narrator tells readers, Moongirl “has total discipline of her body and intellect.” Oddly enough, it is this discipline, coupled with her lack of emotional control that makes her unbalanced and, therefore, insane: “She has no discipline of her emotions. She is, therefore out of balance, and balance is a requirement of sanity” (35).
Vanessa, a former acquaintance of Brian McCarthy, Amy’s boyfriend, an architect, is cruel. She is also unusual, if not altogether original, in her cruelty, sending Brian sadistic emails such as this one:
How are you doing, Bry? Do you have cancer yet? You’re only thirty-four next
week, but people die young of cancer all the time. It’s not too much to hope for

(28).
Taking a cue from The Addams Family, as it were, Koontz, more and more often, makes his evil characters not only evil and insane but eccentric as well. Odd, unconventional characters may or may not be sympathetic--since they tend to be villains in Koontz’s work, the selfdom are--but they are both interesting and memorable for the very reason that they are eccentric. Moreover, Koontz’s villains, although sociopaths, are artists of a sort--failed artists who, despite great gifts of intelligence and creativity, are more interested in creating masterpieces of ugliness, violence, cruelty, and evil than in art which is beautiful, inspiring, or liberating. As such, they are another device by which Koontz both engages his readers and moves his story’s plot along.

In the world of Koontz, women and children are eternal victims. Often traumatized, the women, nevertheless, are able to take charge of their affairs, if not themselves, and, motivated by the opportunity to rescue an abused child from the clutches of a violent, hateful father or to save a wife from her wife-beating husband (or, as in the case of the Darkest Evening of the Year, to rescue both, simultaneously), the female protagonist rises to the occasion, thereby ensuring a better future for the victims she’s rescued and a chance at eventual wholeness, both for the rescuer and the rescued. As mentioned, she is apt to receive help from the world’s sole surviving good guy and to fall in love with him during the course of her trials and tribulations.

In The Darkest Evening of the Year, it is a golden retriever, Nickie (dogs are another staple among the items in Koontz’s narrative bag of tricks), a wife, Janet Brockman, and Janet’s two children, Jimmie and Theresa (“Reesa”). After rescuing Nickie, by buying him for $2,000, Amy returns, with boyfriend Brain, to rescue Haney and the kids: “After Amy had told her story to the police, and while the others told theirs, she led Theresa out of the kitchen, along the hallway, seeking the boy” (23).

Just as Koontz’s fiction includes eccentric villains, it also features precocious or gifted children. In The Darkest Evening of the Year, Reesa is such a child, able to speak and sing in other languages, such as Celtic, which she has heard only once but has never learned and, it is hinted, may have other paranormal or supernatural powers as well.

Koontz’s books include one or more subplots which are developed in chapters that alternate more or less regularly with the chapters in which the main plot plays out, and the desire to see how these plots come together and complement one another is another reason that readers’ interest is maintained while the plot moves forward. Like any writer, Koontz hordes expository information, releasing background and explanatory information to readers strictly on an as-needed basis. As a result, suspense is maintained. Unlike some authors, however, Koontz accomplishes this feat on several narrative levels at once, and readers are keen to learn how and why the related mysteries of plot and subplot are related to one another.

An accomplished writer with scores of books in several genres to his credit (and, sometimes, to his blame), Koontz can write with the best of them, thanks, in no small part to the techniques we’ve identified in this article. However, the same novel that contains smart dialogue, intriguing characters, sometimes fast-paced action, and interesting subplots bogs down considerably in the vast middle that is sandwiched between a captivating and a wham-bam ending. It does so for at least two reasons.

First, many of the wafer-thin chapters are too insubstantial to be included as separate chapters at all. Instead of adding something essential, or even significant, they merely stretch the subplots’ narratives to unnecessary lengths, at the same time doling out what is often really only one scene over a number of increasingly less dramatic and interesting installments until it is hard to continue to care about what, if anything, is supposed to be happening.

Second, as many established writers seem to do, Koontz uses his novel to propagandize about golden retrievers, or “goldens” as he too often calls the animals. Lately, it’s a rare occasion when one of his books doesn’t involve a canine character that’s nearly as intelligent as a human being and far nobler. Indeed, some of these dogs have superhuman abilities, as Nickie appears, at times, to have. Koontz’s descriptions of the dogs is cloying most of the time and downright nauseating in its sentimentality on occasion (in The Darkest Evening of the Year, he actually names two “goldens” “Fred” and “Ethel”). His descriptions of his dogs is frequently unbelievable as well, and, far too often, Koontz’s plot, like the story’s verisimilitude, takes second place to the author’s insistence upon glorifying his canine character. An example should suffice to show us the errors of his ways:
If you are a dog lover, a true dog lover, and not just one who sees them as pets or animals, but are instead one who sees them as one’s dear companions, and more than companions--sees them as perhaps being but a step or two down the species ladder from humankind, not sharing human exceptionalism but not an abyss below it, either--you watch them differently from the way other people watch them, with a respect for their born dignity, with a recognition for their capacity to know joy and to suffer melancholy, with the certainty that they suspect tyranny of time even if they don’t fully understand the cruelty of it, that they are not, as self-blinded experts contend, unaware of their own mortality.

If you watch them with this heightened perception, from this more generous perspective, as Amy had long watched them, you see a remarkable complexity in each dog’s personality, an individualism uncannily human in its refinement, though with none of the worst of human faults. You see an intelligence and a fundamental ability to reason that can sometimes take your breath away (53).
If there is a lesson to be learned from Koontz’s excesses in promoting his favorable view of dogs as superior to humans (in some, or even most, ways) for other writers, surely it is this: self-indulgent writing, especially when it is laced with sentimentality, detracts from, and can even destroy, a story that is otherwise well crafted from a variety of effective techniques that engage readers while, at the same time, moving the action along.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Sympathetic Character: Intimations of Past Trauma

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman


Dean Koontz’s villains (who are almost always male) represent fictionalized versions of his abusive, self-destructive, violent, alcoholic father, just as his heroines are imaginary embodiments of his loving, longsuffering, and abused mother. The initial villain, Carl Brockman, and the heroine, Amy Redwing, of one of the prolific Koontz’s latest novels, The Darkest Evening of the Year, are no exceptions to these archetypes, which, like his formulaic approach to fiction, derive from his childhood exposure to good and evil as they were embodied by his mother and his father, respectively.

Once Sarah Michelle Gellar asked Joss Whedon why it was necessary for her character, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to cry in yet another installment in the series’ episodes. Whedon’s reply was that it was necessary to make Buffy suffer (and Gellar to cry) in order to sustain his audience’s interest in the character and the show.

Apparently, Koontz is on the same page as Whedon in this regard, for virtually all of Koontz’s heroines are cursed with past trauma that affects their present-day lives, usually in relation to men, whom they often fear and distrust. They are also usually damsels in distress, for whom the appearance of a knight in shining armor rescues them not only from the looming catastrophe of the moment but also from the pain and suffering they endured in the past and continue to experience in the present.

Giving a heroine (or a child) a traumatic past is a splendid way of creating a sympathetic character and of making him or (usually) her more likeable as well, and, since he is especially adept at doing so, Koontz is worth studying along these lines, and, since it is a recent (and therefore, well-rehearsed) example of the techniques that Koontz uses to intimate a heroine’s past trauma, The Darkest Evening of the Year is as good a text as any to consult for this purpose.

We can deduce a few principles for suggesting a traumatic past for a sympathetic character, based upon Koontz’s practice in doing so. The first rule is to indicate past suffering early in the initial chapter, at the very outset, if possible.

After naming his protagonist and briefly describing the general setting, Koontz transitions to paragraphs four through eight of his first chapter, in which he suggests that Amy’s past includes a good deal of suffering. As a consequence, much of the intimation of Amy’s past trauma appears on the very first page of the novel. (Koontz writes newspaper-short paragraphs in a style that also seems to imitate that of the contemporary journalist.)
Amy Redwing did not know her origins. Abandoned at the age of two, she had no memory of her mother and father.

She had been left in a church, her name pinned to her shirt. A nun had found her sleeping on a pew.

Most likely, her surname had been invented to mislead. The police had failed to trace it to anyone.

Redwing suggested a Native American heritage. Raven hair and dark eyes argued Cherokee, but her ancestors might as likely have come from Armenia or Sicily, or Spain.
Amy’s history remained incomplete, but the lack of roots did not set her free. She was chained to some ringbolt set in the stone of a distant year (3 - 4).

Using humorous dialogue between Amy and her friend, architect Brian McCarthy, as Amy drives to a house to rescue a golden retriever (and, as it happens, a mother and her two children) from drunken and abusive Carl, Koontz maintains interest in his protagonist’s current behavior. The contest of wills between Amy and Carl and the potential for additional explosive violence from Carl, whether directed toward his wife Janet, their daughter Theresa (“Reesa”), their son Jimmy, or at Amy and Brian themselves, sustain interest as Amy offers to buy the dog, Nicky, for as much as two thousand dollars. Koontz’s use of humor also contrasts sharply with the violence that follows, thereby heightening the cruelty and brutality when they do occur. While Amy dickers with the sullen, abusive “wife-beater,” Carl, Koontz takes the opportunity to remind the reader of Amy’s past in a short exchange of dialogue between the two characters:
Under his brow, Carl’s eyes were deep wells with foul water glistening darkly at the bottom. “Don’t mock me.”

“I wouldn’t, sir. I can’t. I was pretty much raised by nuns. . . ” (13).
Perhaps afraid that his readers will be put off by the apparent hopelessness of Amy’s life, which is mirrored by the desperate situation in which Janet and her children (and their dog) find themselves, Koontz hastens, at the end of his first chapter, to reassure his readers, in a vague and general way, that things will be all right in the end:
At the core of every ordered system, whether a family or a factory, is chaos. But in the whirl of every chaos lies a strange order, waiting to be found (18).
At the end of chapter two, having managed to rescue Janet, her children, and their dog (not bad for an evening’s work), Amy drives away, the rescued in her Ford Expedition, and Koontz, once again, now that a lull in the action has been reached, intimates that Amy has herself experienced trauma in her past, about which, readers may be sure, they will hear more in the upcoming pages of Amy’s story:
Amy remembered a winter night with blood upon the snow and a turbulence of sea gulls thrashing into flight from the eaves of the high catwalk, white wings briefly dazzling as they oared [sic] skyward through the sweeping beam of the lighthouse, like an honor guard of angels escorting home a sinless soul (25).
Thereafter, until the moment comes to reveal the nature of the past trauma in detail, usually during a flashback that is related to, or inspired by, the story’s present action, an occasional reminder as to the protagonist’s traumatic past is all that is needed, and these reminders can be tucked into the narrative where it is appropriate and effective to do so. For example, in enquiring of Janet whether Reesa has any paranormal or supernatural powers beyond her ability to speak and sing in other languages, such as Celtic, which Reesa has merely heard without having learned, Janet asks what Amy means, which prompts this expository information from the novel’s omniscient, third-person narrator, at the end of chapter six:
To explain, Amy would have to open door after door into herself, into places in the heart that she did not want to visit. “I don’t know. I don’t know what I meant by that” (44).
What, exactly, is the trauma that Amy experienced in her past that continues to haunt her in her present-day life and to motivate and to otherwise affect her current behavior?

Her secrets won’t be revealed here; one will have to buy or borrow Koontz’s novel to learn the dirt concerning the protagonist. However, no doubt, the desire to know all the juicy details is there; in fact, it may seem as overwhelming as a need (in which case, another copy of Koontz’s novel will surely be sold or checked out at one’s local library).

And that’s just the point, of course. By intimating that his story’s main character has experienced a traumatic past that continues to haunt her today, Koontz makes his readers want to learn more about Amy. She has become interesting and sympathetic, someone whom readers want to get to know better, someone with whom, readers feel, they could be friends. By suggesting that Amy has a pain-filled past that continues to affect her behavior today, Koontz has made his readers care about her, thereby transforming her, as it were, from a simple cardboard character into a flesh-and-blood person, as it were, about whom readers can wonder and contemplate and for whom they can feel compassion and empathy and affection.

Koontz has also related past to present, making the former the prelude to the latter, imparting order and unity and coherence to his novel’s plot, and he has motivated his readers to continue to read, that they might, in the process, satisfy their curiosity concerning Amy’s past, see how and why her past affects her now, in the present, and get to know her better as a likeable and sympathetic character.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Anaphoric Allusions

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Kenneth Burke

No matter how we parse it, evil comes from but two sources (internal or external) and consists of only two types (natural or supernatural). (It may be suggested that there is a third type of evil, namely, paranormal, but a little reflection makes it clear that, by definition, paranormal phenomena are also natural, rather than supernatural, incidents; when their effect is injurious or damaging, they are, from a human perspective, also evil.) Misery, it would seem, is not nearly as “manifold,” as Edgar Allan Poe’s “Berenice” would have us to believe.

In Hitchcock and Poe: The Legacy of Delight and Terror, Dennis R. Perry reminds his readers that Kenneth Burke
. . . listed several sources of the sublime, including power (fear of a superior force), difficulty (extremely complex predicament), obscurity (darkness, fogginess, confusion producing a sense of isolation and helplessness), and privation (isolation, silence, solitude, darkness) (12).
(In reference to horror fiction, “sublime” may be defined as “awe-inspiring,” “astonishing,” or as producing a sense of the uncanny, which includes experiencing a sense of terror; think Rudolph Otto.)
Certainly, Burke’s analysis is insightful and useful to writers of horror fiction, and it seems to expand (although it does not, really) the categories of evil phenomena we listed earlier. Perhaps what Burke’s explanation accomplishes, more than anything, is to characterize the elements of the sublime, or, as we call them here, the types of evil phenomena.

Having suggested the sources, the types, and the character of evil phenomena, we now turn our attention to the ways by which writers of this genre of fiction can, through the use of a limited number of synonyms, reinforce and perhaps even heighten the horrific character of a monster. (There are many other, more sophisticated and subtle ways to accomplish this same objective, of course, such as the use of literary allusions, metaphors, similes, images, irony, and so forth, but, in this post, we concentrate on one of the simplest means of reinforcing and highlighting the character of the monster.)

There may be a few others, but, listed alphabetically, these are the synonyms that come most readily to the mind, perhaps, as means by which to refer to an antecedent term that represents a monster of some kind:
animal, beast, being, demon, entity, fiend, grotesque, imp, it, monster, predator, thing
To this list of basic synonyms may be added one or two more unusual, hyphenated compound adjectives: “hell-beast” and “hell-spawn.” Stephen King (and no doubt others) has created an interesting spin-off, as it were, on the use of such compounds, the first part of which is comprised of the character’s name and the second part of which is made up of the noun “thing,” introducing the compound itself with the definite article “the.” Having forgotten King’s character, “Gary” is hereby substituted, by way of illustrating King’s technique: “the Gary-thing.”


Alfred Hitchcock

Although short, our list gives us simple, but effective, ways to smuggle in associations between our monster, whatever it is, and the fierce or bestial attributes of various other entities, thereby extending, in shorthand fashion, the ongoing sense of the monster’s monstrosity. Of course, some synonyms will be more appropriate to the type of monster stalking our story’s protagonist (and, vicariously, our reader as well) than others would be, and the author should give due consideration to the suitability and aptness of potential synonyms.

For example, if the monster is a natural force, “it” would be fitting, whereas “being” or “entity” would not be suitable, as a synonym. However, if the force were also sentient or intelligent, perhaps “being” or “entity” could be appropriate as a synonym for the monster. Paradoxically, “it” or “thing” might be appropriate even for a human being, suggesting that the person has devolved or otherwise been dehumanized and is more a monster, now, than the man or woman that he or she once was.

Edgar Allan Poe

It helps, too, to have described the monster in terms of the characteristics of the creature to which it will later be related before using a synonym to refer back to the monster thus described. For example, if, later in a sentence, paragraph, chapter, or book, an author uses the word “animal” or “beast” to refer to a monster that he or she has previously described, the effectiveness of the use of such a synonym is heightened if, when the monster was first described, it was characterized as having “sharp teeth,” “fangs,” “claws,” “talons,” “scales,” “wings,” and so forth, for the subsequent allusion to it as an “animal” or a “beast” will then be sufficient to recall to the reader these characteristics of the monster.

The use of nouns and adjectives to refer back to a monster that has been previously introduced and described may seem a slight matter, but, in the final analysis, a writer’s style, which consists, in large part, of his or her deliberate choice of this word or phrase over that, is what separates an author like Edgar Allan Poe from a lesser writer--or, as Mark Twain put it, lightning from the lightning bug, and horror, like all other genres of fiction, is built of words and the choices authors make in using them.

Source

Perry, Dennis. Hitchcock and Poe: The Legacy of Delight and Terror. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2003. Print.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Famous Writers and Director’s Quotes, With More or Less Direct Application to the Theory and Practice of Writing Horror

Ambrose Bierce
  • Edible--good to eat and wholesome to digest, as a worm to a toad, a toad to a snake, a snake to a pig, a pig to a man, and a man to a worm.
  • Impiety--your irreverence toward my deity.
  • Mad--affected with a high degree of intellectual independence.
  • Ocean--a body of water occupying about two-thirds of a world made for man--who has no gills.
  • Politeness--the most acceptable hypocrisy.
  • Pray--to ask the laws of the universe to be annulled on behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.
  • Success is the one unpardonable sin against our fellows.
  • The hardest tumble a man can make is to fall over his own bluff.
  • There are four kinds of homicide: felonious, excusable, justifiable, and praiseworthy.
  • To apologize is to lay the foundation for a future offense.
  • When you doubt, abstain.

Ray Bradbury

  • Americans are far more remarkable than we give ourselves credit for. We've been so busy damning ourselves for years. We've done it all, and yet we don't take credit for it. First you jump off the cliff and you build wings on the way down.
  • The best scientist is open to experience and begins with romance--the idea that anything is possible.
  • Touch a scientist and you touch a child.
  • We are an impossibility in an impossible universe.
  • You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.

John Carpenter

  • Evil hiding among us is an ancient theme.
  • To make Michael Myers frightening, I had him walk like a man, not a monster.
  • What scares me is what scares you. We're all afraid of the same things. That's why horror is such a powerful genre. All you have to do is ask yourself what frightens you and you'll know what frightens me.

G. K. Chesterton

  • A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.
  • A man does not know what he is saying until he knows what he is not saying.
  • All slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry.
  • An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.
  • Art consists of limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame.
  • Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere.
  • Brave men are all vertebrates; they have their softness on the surface and their toughness in the middle.
  • Cruelty is, perhaps, the worst kid of sin. Intellectual cruelty is certainly the worst kind of cruelty.
  • Fable is more historical than fact, because fact tells us about one man and fable tells us about a million men.
  • Happy is he who still loves something he loved in the nursery: He has not been broken in two by time; he is not two men, but one, and he has saved not only his soul but his life.
  • It isn't that they can't see the solution. It is that they can't see the problem.
  • If it is not true that a divine being fell, then we can only say that one of the animals went entirely off its head.
  • Man seems to be capable of great virtues but not of small virtues; capable of defying his torturer but not of keeping his temper.
  • Men always talk about the most important things to perfect strangers. In the perfect stranger we perceive man himself; the image of a God is not disguised by resemblances to an uncle or doubts of the wisdom of a mustache.
  • Never invoke the gods unless you really want them to appear. It annoys them very much.
  • Nothing is poetical if plain daylight is not poetical; and no monster should amaze us if the normal man does not amaze.
  • Once I planned to write a book of poems entirely about the things in my pocket. But I found it would be too long; and the age of the great epics is past.
  • The man who throws a bomb is an artist, because he prefers a great moment to everything.
  • The most dangerous criminal now is the entirely lawless modern philosopher. Compared to him, burglars and bigamists are essentially moral men.
  • The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.
  • The ordinary scientific man is strictly a sentimentalist. He is a sentimentalist in this essential sense, that he is soaked and swept away by mere associations.
  • The perplexity of life arises from there being too many interesting things in it for us to be interested properly in any of them.
  • The purpose of compulsory education is to deprive the common people of their commonsense.
  • The simplification of anything is always sensational.
  • The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.
  • The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one's own country as a foreign land.
  • The whole order of things is as outrageous as any miracle which could presume to violate it.
  • Their is a road from the eye to heart that does not go through the intellect.
  • There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.
  • There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.
  • Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions.
  • When we really worship anything, we love not only its clearness but its obscurity. We exult in its very invisibility.
  • With any recovery from morbidity there must go a certain healthy humiliation.

Wes Craven

  • A lot of life is dealing with your curse, dealing with the cards you were given that aren't so nice. Does it make you into a monster, or can you temper it in some way, or accept it and go in some other direction?
  • I have a lot of fans who are people of color. I think, if nothing else, I kind of understand that sense of being on the outside looking in, culturally.
  • The first monster you have to scare the audience with is yourself.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

  • A hero cannot be a hero unless in a heroic world.
  • All brave men love; for he only is brave who has affections to fight for, whether in the daily battle of life, or in physical contests.
  • Easy reading is damn hard writing.
  • Nobody, I think, ought to read poetry, or look at pictures or statues, who cannot find a great deal more in them than the poet or artist has actually expressed. Their highest merit is suggestiveness.
  • Religion and art spring from the same root and are close kin. Economics and art are strangers.
  • The founders of a new colony, whatever utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.
  • We sometimes congratulate ourselves at the moment of waking from a troubled dream; it may be so the moment after death.
  • What other dungeon is so dark as one's own heart! What jailer so inexorable as one's self!

Alfred Hitchcock

  • Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.
  • Blondes make the best victims. They're like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints.
  • The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.
  • The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.
  • There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.

Stephen King

  • I guess when you turn off the main road, you have to be prepared to see some funny houses.
  • It's better to be good than evil, but one achieves goodness at a terrific cost.
  • No, it's not a very good story--its author was too busy listening to other voices to listen as closely as he should have to the one coming from inside.
  • We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.

Dean Koontz

  • A fanatic is a nut who has something to believe in.
  • Because people see violence on the movie screen, they're not going to go out and hold up a liquor store and kill somebody. It really doesn't correlate.
  • Civilization rests on the fact that most people do the right thing most of the time.
  • Each reader needs to bring his or her own mind and heart to the text.
  • I don't write a quick draft and then revise; instead, I work slowly page by page, revising and polishing.
  • I have been reading Stephen King since Carrie and hope to read him for many years to come.
  • I have to admit that when I watch a movie in which there is no moral context for the violence--I find that offensive. I think that's potentially damaging to society.
  • I think it's the people who have no doubt that every word they put down is gold that probably don't write very well.
  • If I drive myself to the brink of my ability, then I don't get stale or bored.
  • Never, never try to scope the market.
  • Readers will stay with an author, no matter what the variations in style and genre, as long as they get that sense of story, of character, of empathetic involvement.
  • Some days I'm lucky to squeeze out a page of copy that pleases me, but I get as many as six or seven pages on a very good day; the average is probably three pages.
  • The only reason I would write a sequel is if I were struck by an idea that I felt to be equal to the original. Too many sequels diminish the original.
  • Vladimir Nabokov said the two great evils of the 20th century were Marx and Freud. He was absolutely correct.
  • We are coming out of a century that was taught that one way of looking at the world, that one form of behavior, is as valid as another.
  • The idea of true evil has been blown away.
  • What we do as a society is seek simple answers.
  • When I'm working on a novel, I work 70-hour weeks.

C. S. Lewis

  • An explanation of cause is not a justification by reason.
  • Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable.
  • Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say "infinitely" when you mean "very"; otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.
  • Humans are amphibians--half spirit and half animal. As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time.
  • If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.
  • If we cut up beasts simply because they cannot prevent us and because we are backing our own side in the struggle for existence, it is only logical to cut up imbeciles, criminals, enemies, or capitalists for the same reasons.
  • Let's pray that the human race never escapes from Earth to spread its iniquity elsewhere.
  • Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.
  • Reason is the natural order of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.
  • The long, dull, monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity are excellent campaigning weather for the devil.
  • The safest road to hell is the gradual one--the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.
  • The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.
  • We are what we believe we are.
  • What we call Man's power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.

Joyce Carol Oates

  • If you are a writer you locate yourself behind a wall of silence and no matter what you are doing, driving a car or walking or doing housework you can still be writing, because you have that space.
  • Life and people are complex. A writer as an artist doesn't have the personality of a politician. We don't see the world that simply.
  • Love commingled with hate is more powerful than love. Or hate.
  • Our enemy is by tradition our savior, in preventing us from superficiality.

Flannery O’Connor

  • All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal.
  • Everywhere I go, I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. There's many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.
  • I am not afraid that the book will be controversial, I'm afraid it will not be controversial.
  • I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.
  • It seems that the fiction writer has a revolting attachment to the poor, for even when he writes about the rich, he is more concerned with what they lack than with what they have.
  • Manners are of such great consequence to the novelist that any kind will do. Bad manners are better than no manners at all, and because we are losing our customary manners, we are probably overly conscious of them; this seems to be a condition that produces writers.
  • The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location.
  • The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.
  • To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness.
  • When in Rome, do as you have done in Milledgeville.

Edgar Allan Poe

  • Experience has shown, and a true philosophy will always show, that a vast, perhaps the larger portion of the truth arises from the seemingly irrelevant.
  • I am above the weakness of seeking to establish a sequence of cause and effect, between the disaster and the atrocity.
  • I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.
  • It will be found, in fact, that the ingenious are always fanciful, and the truly imaginative never otherwise than analytic.
  • The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?
  • The death of a beautiful woman, is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.
  • They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.
  • Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality.

Anne Rice

  • Evil is always possible. Goodness is a difficulty.
  • First-person narrators is the way I know how to write a book with the greatest power and chance of artistic success.
  • I feel like an outsider, and I always will feel like one. I've always felt that I wasn't a member of any particular group.
  • I'm always asking questions.
  • I'm fascinated by almost any mythology that I can get my hands on.
  • Re-telling the Christian story is the essence of my vocation. That has been going on since the Evangelists in one form or another.
  • The thing should have plot and character, beginning, middle and end. Arouse pity and then have a catharsis. Those were the best principles I was ever taught.
  • The world doesn't need any more mediocrity or hedged bets.
  • Very few beings really seek knowledge in this world. Mortal or immortal, few really ask. On the contrary, they try to wring from the unknown the answers they have already shaped in their own minds.
  • We're frightened of what makes us different.

Steven Spielberg

  • All of us every single year, we're a different person. I don't think we're the same person all our lives.
  • I interviewed survivors, I went to Poland, saw the cities and spent time with the people and spoke to the Jews who had come back to Poland after the war and talked about why they had come back.
  • I never felt comfortable with myself, because I was never part of the majority. I always felt awkward and shy and on the outside of the momentum of my friends' lives.
  • You know, I don't really do that much looking inside me when I'm working on a project.
  • Whatever I am becomes what that film is. But I change; you change.

H. G. Wells

  • Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature's inexorable imperative.
  • Affliction comes to us, not to make us sad but sober; not to make us sorry but wise.I must confess that my imagination refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocating its crew and floundering at sea.Some people bear three kinds of trouble--the ones they've had, the ones they have, and the ones they expect to have.
  • The past is but the past of a beginning.
  • There is nothing in machinery, there is nothing in embankments and railways and iron bridges and engineering devices to oblige them to be ugly. Ugliness is the measure of imperfection.
  • What really matters is what you do with what you have.
  • You have learned something. That always feels at first as if you had lost something.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Building Horror and Suspense Tobe Hooper’s Way, Part 2

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman


In Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre: The Films of Tobe Hooper, John Kenneth Muir explains some of the narrative and symbolic devices that Hooper uses in his film, Invaders From Mars (1986) to build horror and suspense.

According to Muir, Hooper is “quite expert at using the background and foregrounds of shots to convey important, frightening information” (109). In support of his contention, Muir offers a couple of especially instructive examples, worth quoting in their entirety:

Tobe Hooper’s use of film language in Invaders From Mars is the most impressive it’s been since The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. His always-on-the-prowl camera not only records David’s nightmare of alien invasion, [but] it [also] successfully expresses his situation, his mood, and his feelings of isolation. The opening shot of the movie, that of David and his Dad [sic] lying flat on their backs in the grass, stargazing, should be a peaceful, idyllic one. Instead, forecasting the horror to come, the high[-]angle perspective (always the harbinger of doom in the cinematic lexicon) grows increasingly disturbed. As the camera nears its objects, it commences a fast spin, rolling over and over as it nears David and his Dad [sic]. This spin reveals that David Gardner’s world is about to be turned upside down, and that below the surface of perfect suburbia, trouble exists.

Throughout the film, Hooper’s well-placed camera continues to express the plight of the film’s dreaming protagonist. On the school playground, David is farmed inside a metal jungle jim [sic], a surrogate jail cell of sorts, and the message is clear: he’s trapped like a caged animal. Of all the children on the playground, only Davis is “trapped” in this fashion, simultaneously indicating his special status (as the star of his own dream) as well as his knowledge of his isolation. Later, David is literally surrounded by cages, by stuffed, mounted animals in miniature cages in his teacher’s van, and the blocking is very much the same, expressing the identical point: this is a nightmare David cannot escape from. Instead of relying on art design, [William Cameron] Menzies [the director of the original film of which Hooper’s version is a remake] staged many shots, nay entire sequences, in minimalist oversized sets to achieve similar results: feelings of entrapment and isolation. Instead of relying on art design, Hooper falls back on his thorough understanding of film grammar, mise en scene and cutting (108-109).

Writers of short stories and novels, it may be argued, do not have the resources at hand that filmmakers do, and, even if they had, their medium is pen, ink, and paper (or, more likely, a computerized word processor and printer). What good, therefore, does it do the short story writer or the novelist to examine the narrative techniques of movie directors and cameramen? The short answer is that it’s not only possible, but desirable, to learn artistic techniques from as many artists as possible, without undue concern as to their form or genre, always with an eye as to how to adapt their methods to one’s own work. After all, filmmakers have certainly helped themselves generously to quite a few literary techniques as well as to the methods of other artists, visual, plastic, musical, and otherwise.

Instead of a camera, the writer has description. Description, it may be truly be said, is the writer’s camera. Using its powers, he or she can create symbolic images, just as Hooper does, with his spinning camera and high-angle camera perspective, and images of the Jungle Jim and the caged animals. (A literary master of such technique is Stephen Crane; consider his use of symbolic imagery in The Red Badge of Courage, for example, in which he describes the clearing in a forest near a battlefield in terms of a cathedral.) What a writer can learn, more specifically than merely the use of symbolic imagery, created through description, to express theme, convey a character’s emotion, suggest the narrative‘s tone, or to effect foreshadowing, perhaps, is what Muir points out concerning Hooper’s employment of mise en scene’s blocking out of the critical elements of a scene so as to exploit the background and the foreground of each separate shot. Before writing a scene, an author should write out, in a few sentences, as specifically as possible, the answers to such questions as:

  1. What is the purpose of this scene?
  2. Can a special perspective (camera angle, as it were) be used to heighten the reader’s interest and to emphasize key information (or maybe to shift the reader’s focus away from a bit of information--a clue, for example, in a murder mystery) in the scene?
  3. What should the scene’s lighting be? Should it be direct, indirect, partial, full, from above, below, from one side or the other, from behind? (Anyone who has ever held a flashlight below his or her chin in an otherwise dark room knows what valuable tricks light can play in creating horror, fear, or suspense.)
  4. What properties (“props”) should the scene include, and why? To what use should they be put?
  5. What link is there between this scene and its predecessor, and what link is there between it and the next scene?
  6. What colors will be used to describe the characters’ hair, eyes, clothes, the “props,” and other items contained in the scene?

In other words, start to think off scenes not as so many words on a page, sandwiched between other segments of words on other pages, but as an image (or a series of connected images) within the continuous flow of many other, related images which, together, tell a unified, coherent, and meaningful story. At the same time, though, consider how the scene can best perform its function, or purpose, within the whole of which it is a part, using symbolism, irony, composition, and other elements, both narrative and visual.

The result will be a more artistically told story, and a story that is apt to be taken more seriously. At times, it is enough, perhaps, to tell a story, but it is always better to tell a story well.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Building Horror and Suspense Tobe Hooper’s Way

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

In Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre: The Films of Tobe Hooper, John Kenneth Muir explains some of the narrative and symbolic devices that Hooper uses in his film, Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), to build horror and suspense.

First, Muir says, Hooper sets the tone of the film by using symbolic images that suggest that the world exists within an indifferent, or even hostile, universe in which human life is not only meaningless but also endangered. A corpse is shown, posed as if it were a work of art (55). Then, Hooper shows “close-ups of violent eruptions on the surface of our sun,” the red shade of which “belies a kind of anger,” the whole image implying, again, that “the universe is disordered, anarchic, even cruel.” Indeed, the sun and the moon may represent the eyes of the “cosmos,” suggesting that the cosmos is “watching from a distance” (56). One might even wonder if the heavenly orbs might suggest that God is observing the bizarre and hideous actions that transpire in the film. If so, the God who watches such horrors is obviously not a loving God, but a voyeur who is something along the lines of a sadist. A third image is that of armadillo road kill. It is important to observe that the armadillo “is overturned, upside down,” because such a position, Muir points out, “is a long-time signifier of death in the language of the cinema” (56). This image accomplishes a double task, Muir says. First, it reinforces the idea that “the ordered universe has become topsy-turvy” because although “the highway is a symbol of man’s intelligence and his need to connect one place to another,” the presence of the dead armadillo suggests that “above and beyond man’s sense of self-imposed order (the road), is the overriding chaos of the universe” (56). Second, the image of the dead armadillo heralds a similar image of a homeless man, “signifying. . . the death and horror to come”:

Not long after the shot of the armadillo, a drink is seen in the cemetery to be lying in the same position as the road kill. . . . In fact, this is the film’s second “armadillo” shot: the drunk’s face is upside down in the frame too, out of order, signifying again the death and horror to come (56).
So far, three images have conspired, so to speak, to indicate that the world exists within an indifferent, or even hostile, universe in which human life is not only meaningless but also endangered. Next, sound--or, more specifically--music is used to further underscore the universe’s cosmic indifference to humanity:

The music in the film. . . is distinctly unpleasant, all cymbal crashes and echoes; highly discordant and jarring. There is no lyrical theme running through the music, no recognizable leitmotif, only a jumble of ugly, seemingly random sounds strung together. Like the eruptions on the surface of the sun, the music reflects the absence of equilibrium, sanity, reason, and order in the universe” (56).
This sense of an unintelligible, meaningless, and possibly hostile universe comes across even more clearly when there is, as it were, a “theme” or “leitmotif” to man-made sounds, such as, for example, the news report to which one of the film’s characters is listening at the moment that he is struck and killed by a passing truck while he is busy reliving himself into a cup while standing at the edge of the road. The report is full of seemingly random events of a “discomforting” character, which, taken together, indicate “a disordered, uncaring universe” (57).

Having used both images and sound to symbolize such cosmic indifference to humanity, Hooper now turns his film’s attention to its characters, eliminating, from the very outset, first the group of victims’ “alpha male,” followed, in short order, by the elimination of the second male, which leads the female character on her own, with “no ‘male’ figure to cling to at all” (57-58).

Hooper ratchets up the film’s horror and suspense by refusing to grant the character’s experiences any meaning; what happens to them--and, vicariously, to the audience, has no cognitive or epistemological significance; they learn nothing from it. Therefore, their experience is without value:
He denies his viewers the critical act of learning. . . . an audience usually learns important facts from the story’s structure or through the expositional dialogue of the main characters. . . . Knowledge does not pass from one protagonist to the next and no acts are explained or even rationalized. . . . They are killed without learning anything. . . and so the audience doesn’t learn anything either (58).
The failure to explain the bizarre, violent incidents lends the film verisimilitude, Muir suggests, because, in moviegoers’ own lives, similar events transpire, without readymade answers (58).

By setting up a series of expectations on the parts of both his characters and the audience and then frustrating or “overturning” them, Hooper maintains the horror, the randomness, and the suspense of his movie’s action, Muir adds: “They go to the gas station expecting gas, but it’s out of gas. They go to the swimming hole expecting water, but it’s dry. They go to the friendly looking farmhouse down the lane expecting help but find only insanity and death” (58).

Likewise, the characters are dwarfed by their surroundings, which suggests that they are of comparatively little significance whose lives are often on the verge of extinction, whether they are aware of their danger or not:
Hooper takes special pains to accentuate the vastness of the universe around his young characters. . . . Hooper sees [them] much as those very characters view the spiders in the web or the cows locked away in the slaughterhouses. They’re little, meaningless creatures, running around in their lives with a sort of tunnel vision, unable to see that they inhabit a much larger and terribly frightening domain. As human beings, we. . . do a hundred “normal” and “routine” things . . . while unaware that a tornado could be approaching, or that a serial killer could be roaming the very neighborhood where we live. But we impose a false sense of order (and hence security) in our everyday existence and Tobe Hooper’s modus operandi is to strip all that away. . . . We‘re victims of a universe that unfolds randomly (59-60).
According to Muir, Hooper is not necessarily an atheist. It could be that “the universe has a plan”; it’s just that “humans don’t know what it is, or even if they’re important to it” (60), a point that Hooper underscores through imagery, camera angles, and his characters’ dialogue:

Under the uncaring eye of the distant sun, Jerry’s van picks up the Hitchhiker. . . . Under a giant blue sky, the Hitchhiker [one of the film’s antagonists] and the van itself might as well be ants on a hill or cows in the slaughterhouse. . . . Hooper and cinematographer [Daniel] Pearl make inventive use of the low angle perspective. . . . [to reveal] the inherent hierarchy (or disorder) of the universe. High above his oblivious characters stand outer space, suns, and galaxies. And those cosmic entities could not care less that five teens are about to meet their makers in a backwater corner of some place called Texas.

The film’s dialogue reinforces many of these themes (60).

The film’s central antagonist, the cannibalistic, transvestite, serial killer name Leatherface, is himself an embodiment of Hooper’s view of the universe as an uncaring, hostile place: “Ultimately, the very nature of Leatherface’s villainy is a prominent part of Hooper’s thesis about the universe, too.” For example, “he doesn’t want to have sex with the lovely Sally.” Instead, as if she were nothing more than a cow in a slaughterhouse, “where her grandfather once worked,” Leatherface would rather slaughter and eat Sally and wear her face as a mask (60).

The sole survivor, Sally survives merely by chance: she “happens to get a break, to escape the crazies and make it to the road beyond the farmhouse but none of that is part of a design or intentional strategy on her part. It’s just the law of averages” (66); the universe remains impartial in its indifference to all humanity. Moreover, as Muir points out, Sally’s escape may not have left her unscathed emotionally: “her sanity is in serious question at the end of Chain Saw” (66).

Finally, Hooper uses even seemingly random business and road signs to reinforce his movie’s horror and suspense:

Also interesting is Hooper’s appropriate use of signage at just the right times to provide the audience with subconscious clues about the horror to come. At the gas station, there is a sign reading “Gulf,” quite an appropriate brand for a half-way place between two regions, in this case the normal and the insane. Shortly thereafter, another sign reads “STOP” as the protagonists near the old Franklin place, a visual warning that is ultimately ignored (67).
It should be obvious that Hooper is a consummate director of horror films, adept in the use of symbolic imagery, instrumental music, the denial of thematic meaning to his characters’ experiences, frustrated expectations, irony, size discrepancies between characters and their vast surroundings, dialogue, business and road signs, and other forms of non-verbal communication to suggest both horror and suspense. Any storyteller, whether of film or literary fiction, interested in the horror genre would do well to study the techniques of such a master. Fortunately, Muir’s study of precisely this topic, in Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre, helps one to do just this.

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.

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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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