Fascinating lists!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Comings and Goings: Encountering Danger and Destiny

There are only two ways by which a protagonist may encounter an antagonist. Either the main character must go to the villain or the bad guy must come to the hero.

Despite the extreme limitation of the come-or-go nature or such encounters, writers have exercised a fair amount of creativity in varying the means by which their characters rendezvous with their destinies as these fates are embodied by the antagonistic beings or forces they engage. Moreover, in doing so, they often offer a contemporary variation upon an older theme. Indeed, the variation’s tie-in with a familiar predecessor can be a selling point in pitching a series to studio or network executives. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the television series Star Trek, for example, pitched his series as a “Wagon Train to the stars.” (Wagon Train is a television Western in which pioneers traveled West in a wagon train, encountering adventures along the way; the series’ unity and continuity was supplied by the continuing presence of the main cast.) In producing Firefly, Joss Whedon followed Roddenberry’s lead, making his spaceship and its crew stand-ins for the wagon train and its team. Obviously, whether Conestoga wagons or spaceships, it was the vehicle, in all three series, which transported the adventurers to the adventures wherein they met their adversaries.

Another of Whedon’s television series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, exemplifies the opposite approach. The show’s protagonist, Buffy Summers, stays put (on the Hellmouth, a center of convergent mystical forces that attracts all manner of paranormal and supernatural entities and forces), and the bad guys come to her.

These two approaches to introducing the white hats to the black hats have been subjected to a wide range of variations, as a consideration of television series, staged plays, movies, and printed fiction (epic poems, short stories, and novels) shows. Have Gun, Will Travel, a Western in which the main character, Paladin, a mercenary gunfighter, traveled from town to town to mete out justice for a price, took the predatory protagonist to his prey. In Maverick, another Western, a pair of brothers, both professional gamblers, roamed from town to town seeking a pair of jacks or better and, often, a couple of frontier temptresses upon whom to spend their winnings, managing to get into trouble of one kind or another along the way. Han Solo, Chewbaca, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and other Star Wars characters flit about the universe, engaging the evil Emperor Palpatine, the emperor’s chief enforcer, Darth Vader, and the empire’s army of star troopers. Aided by Gandalf, Aragorn (“Strider”), Galadriel, Legolas, and others, Lord of the Rings' Frodo Baggins, accompanied by Merry, Pippin, and Sam Gamgee, journey from the Shire to Mordor to destroy the One Ring, encountering the Dark Riders or Ring-Wraiths, the Balrog, Orcs, Saruman, Shelob, Gollum, and many other adversaries along the way.

Stephen King’s novels also exemplify the twofold means of introducing protagonists to whatever form of death and destruction they are destined to encounter, although the bad guys more typically come to the good guys than otherwise. In Carrie, evil comes to Carrie White in the form both of the mother with whom she lives and the classmates with whom she attends school. In Desperation, Tak escapes a caved-in mine to possess the residents of the Nevada town, but David Carver has the misfortune to be passing through Desperation with his family at the time. In It, the protean antagonist comes to Derry, Maine, every 27 years to gorge upon the townspeople’s children. It is the merchandise--and what the customers who buy it are willing to do to obtain it--that the antagonist, Leland Gaunt, brings to Castle Rock, Maine, that provides the malevolence in Needful Things.

Writers can enhance the comings and goings of characters by associating their sources of evil with existential states or conditions, with negative or harmful behavior, and with the follies and foibles of human nature. In Cujo, the rabid Saint Bernard seems to symbolize the infidelity of wife and mother Donna Trenton, whose adulterous affair not only destroys her marriage but leads, indirectly, to the death of her son. Likewise, the villains of Buffy the Vampire Slayer often represent such undesirable states, conditions, behaviors, or foibles as being ignored by one’s peers (“Out of Sight, Out of Mind”), drinking to excess (“Beer Bad”), abusive relationships (“Beauty and the Beasts”), substance abuse (“Wrecked”), and other personal and social demons of teenage and young adult life. Those stories based upon a journey or a quest may be vehicles for their protagonists’ self-discovery and enlightenment as well or a means for exposing social or political hypocrisies, false values, or other community or national shortcomings or transgressions. For example, many view religious faith as a positive force, but King’s Carrie and Children of the Corn suggest that religious fervor, when it becomes extreme, or fanatic, can be a force for evil rather than for good, as do the works of many other writers in both the horror genre and others. Likewise, religious faith that borders upon doubt and despair can be hazardous to one’s health, King’s Cycle of the Werewolf and ‘Salem’s Lot suggest. Evil, as always, flourishes in the shadow of righteousness.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Extrapolations

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

For many authors, plotting is one of the more difficult aspects of writing fiction. However, when one faces difficulty in this enterprise, he or she may take a lesson from Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Angel, who, in answer to Drusilla’s question as to what they should do when Angel’s attempt to awaken the demon Acathla fails, says, “Turn to an old friend” (“Becoming”). High school librarian and member of the Watchers Council Rupert Giles is straightaway kidnapped and tortured. When Drusilla uses her powers of hypnotism and magic to “see inside” Giles’ mind, thus learning of the librarian’s love for the late Jenny Calendar, she assumes the persona of Giles’ lost love and wheedles the information that she and her fellow vampires seek from the heartsick Watcher, and, in Spike’s words, “wackiness ensues.”

One “old friend” concerning plotting is the work of other writers. No, I’m not recommending plagiarism, but the study of technique. It’s never plagiarism, as numerous court cases have proven, to use the same idea as someone else, as long as one’s treatment of the idea is one’s own. Thus, countless stories have been told, both in print and on film, of vampires, demons, witches, werewolves, and other creatures of the night.

The same is true with regard to methods of generating plots: the work of other writers can be the “old friend” whose consultations suggest plots for one’s own fiction. By extrapolating from the characters, settings, and themes that appear in other writers’ work, one can generate ideas for his or her own fiction.

Since, I’ve watched most of the Buffy episodes multiple times, I will use this series as the basis for exemplifying my points.

Capitalize upon Characters’ Familial Relationships

Let’s start with Buffy’s mom, Joyce Summers. After Buffy was expelled from Los Angeles’ Hemery High School for burning down the gymnasium, Joyce and her husband Hank divorced, and Joyce and Buffy relocated to Sunnydale to start life anew. To support them, Joyce opened an art gallery. The series never explains how she financed the move and the opening of the gallery, although one might assume that, perhaps, the money came from her divorce. However, since the source of the money is never actually explained, the financing of Joyce’s and Buffy’s relocation to Sunnydale and of the opening of Joyce’s gallery provide an opportunity for a plot, and one could write an episode wherein it is explained that Joyce’s father or uncle is the moneybags who paid for both the relocation and the opening of the gallery; indeed, he may also be one of the handful of financiers who pays the bills of the Watchers Council itself and, as such, he may or may not have had ulterior motives in addition to, or in lieu of, his altruistic (or apparently altruistic) reasons for helping Joyce and Buffy.

Likewise, computer geek and witch’s apprentice Willow Rosenberg could have, either at Giles’ request or on her own initiative, developed a database of vampires, demons, and other monsters that automatically updates itself whenever she, Giles, Buffy, or Xander (the core members of the “Scoobies”) logs onto the computer--possibly with unanticipated and dangerous results.

Offer Alternate Explanations

In one episode, Hank, visiting Buffy in one of her nightmares, tells her that she is the reason that he and Joyce divorced (“Nightmares”). He tells her that she is a disappointment to him. Not only is she not as bright as he’d hoped she would be, but she also didn’t turn out as he’d anticipated she would. The whole scene is bogus, a product of Buffy’s own insecurities, brought about by a comatose boy’s ability to make others experience bad dreams even as he struggles with his own nightmares. However, the scene raises an interesting question. Why did Hank and Joyce divorce? The true answer to this question could be the genesis of another episode of the series.

Work Your Setting

Sunnydale is located on a Hellmouth. As a result, all manner of nightmarish creatures with “dark powers” are attracted to the town. The Hellmouth also influences both the everyday events that occur in Sunnydale and the personal behavior of its residents. Why, then, shouldn’t the merchandise sold by one of the town’s many shops be tainted, as it were, with evil, causing those who buy it to do wicked deeds?

Introduce New Characters

The series itself uses these same strategies to develop storylines. New characters are constantly introduced to spark plots, sometimes for an individual installment of the show, but more often for several episodes of the series. Some become regularly featured supporting characters; others, occasionally recurring players. Examples include Amy Madison, Willy the Snitch, Whistler, Chanterelle (who later reappears as Lily), Kendra, Faith, Wesley Wyndham-Price, Spike and Drusilla, Riley Finn, Hank Summers, Dawn Summers, and many others.

Use Parallel Plots

Sometimes, the introduction of such characters allow the series’ writers to formulate parallel plots: what happens between two characters, such as teacher Grace Newman and her high school student paramour James Stanley mirrors the antagonistic, love-hate relationship between Buffy and Angel (“I Only Have Eyes For You”). Willow’s eventual discovery of her lesbianism is heralded by the sexual ambiguity of her vampire double who resides in the alternate universe conjured up by Anya, the vengeance demon (“Dopplegangland”). Xander Harris’ insecurities are highlighted when a spell causes a suave, confident, and capable version of himself to appear alongside him (“The Replacement”).

Use Subplots

As Buffy wails on a vampire to release her frustrations, doubts, and fears about her mom’s new boyfriend Ted Buchannan’s usurpation of her mother’s love and attention, confiding to Giles that vampires are evil because they bake delicious meals after taking over one’s home, Giles tells her that her life‘s “subtext is rapidly becoming text.” Likewise, Xander, adopting the role of the psychoanalyst, diagnoses Buffy’s dislike for Joyce’s paramour as representing Buffy’s insecurity of losing her mother to a new “father figure” (“Ted”).

Employ Foils

The series often uses foils, very adroitly, to showcase the attributes, positive and negative, of both Buffy herself and the show’s other recurring characters. Kendra and Faith, each in her own way, are foils to Buffy. Sharp-tongued Cordelia Chase is a foil to witty Xander. Pompous and inept Wesley is a foil to humble and competent Giles. All-American, coren-fed Iowan Riley is a foil to Angel and the other “bad boys” in Buffy’s life. Unrepentant Ethan Rayne is a foil to repentant Giles, as was Jenny Calendar, computer geek extraordinaire, and Giles, the Luddite bookworm.

Back Up Your Characters’ Present Lives

Buffy makes frequent use of the back story to generate storylines while enriching the show’s characters. After Angel appears for nearly 32 episodes, viewers are finally treated to his back story, learning how he was transformed into a vampire, how he tormented Drusilla, how his soul was restored to him in a gypsy curse, and how he met his mentor and was introduced to Buffy (“Becoming”). Other characters’ back stories are provided in a similar fashion in other of the series’ episodes.

Use Artifacts

Have characters discover artifacts that are imbued with supernatural or paranormal power. Not only does Buffy employ this technique for generating plots in such episodes as “Inca Mummy Girl,” (a seal), “Life Serial” (a mummy’s hand), “Becoming” (the sword of the virtuous knight who encased Acathla in stone and, it might be argued, the stone Acathla himself), “I Robot. . . You Jane” (a book in which a demon’s spirit has been imprisoned), “Halloween” (Ethan’s enchanted costumes), and others, but this is also the whole basis of Warehouse 13, a show created by one of Buffy’s alumni, writer Jane Espenson.

Devise a Plot Generator (or Two)

A plot generator, or McGuffin, as Alfred Hitchcock calls this device, is simply an element of the plot that exists for no other reason than to propel the storyline forward. In Hitchcock's own work, such McGuffins include the money stolen by Marion Crane in Psycho, the gift of the lovebirds in The Birds, and the uranium in Notorious. In Buffy, the Hellmouth, which attracts evil agents because it is a center for the convergence of mystical energies, is a plot generator. It could be argued that the witchcraft that is practiced by Willow, Giles, Jenny, Ethan, and other characters in the series is also a plot generator, for many of the show’s storylines result from the casting of spells and curses and other effects of witchcraft.

Relate Your Story to Past and Future Times (and to Other Worlds)

The idea that there is a long line of vampire slayers, the latest of whom happens to be Buffy, allows the writers to relate the series’ present to past slayers’ lives and deeds, as does the extraordinarily long lifespan of demons such as Darla, Angel, Drusilla, and others. The presence of characters who can defy the physical laws of the universe by the practice of magic also allows the writers to create alternate realities, parallel dimensions, and futuristic worlds, thereby expanding the setting and the narrative possibilities of the series almost infinitely.

Write Cross-Genre Fiction

Dean Koontz was one of the first big-name writer to pen cross-genre fiction, simultaneously including in his work elements of horror, fantasy, science fiction, romance, and the thriller. As a result, he interests many more readers than he might have attracted had he restricted himself to science fiction and horror, the two genres in which he initially made his mark. Not only does Buffy’s creator, Joss Whedon, likewise increase his series’ fan base by tossing several literary genres into the Buffy stew, but he also increases the possibilities for storylines. The slayer, for example, can be in love with a vampire whom she may have to kill or who may kill her, her family, or her friends, and the monsters whom she fights can be the products of mystical forces, scientific experiments gone awry, visitors from other worlds or realities, government agents, or dead men walking.

Use Pastiche

Pastiche is the imitation of another literary style, convention, trope, character, storyline or other element. Sometimes, pastiche is ironic or satirical, but it need not be. By availing oneself of the traditions and conventions of the genre or genres of which one’s own work is an example, one can realize many ideas for plots that otherwise would go by the wayside. Buffy is certainly not shy about using pastiche to generate storylines, as a number of episodes’ plots suggest:

“Out of Sight, Out of Mind”/The Invisible Man
“Some Assembly Required”/Frankenstein
“Inca Mummy Girl”/The Mummy
“Go Fish”/The Creature From the Black Lagoon
“Beauty and the Beasts”/The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
“Dead Man’s Party”/Pet Sematary, The Night of the Living Dead, the Gorgon myth
“Gingerbread”/“Hansel and Gretel”
“Buffy vs. Dracula”/Dracula
“Life Serial”/Groundhog Day

Whatever leaf one takes from the tree of another’s work, whether by capitalizing upon familial relationships, offering alternate explanations, working the setting, introducing new characters, using parallel plots, using subplots, employing foils, enriching characters’ lives with back stories, using artifacts, devising a plot generator, relating the story’s present to past or future times, writing cross-genre fiction, or using pastiche, it is necessary in such extrapolations to make the use of these elements one’s own. For example, Buffy uses many of the traditional characters of horror and science fiction, including the werewolf, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the invisible man (or girl, in Buffy), the mummy, and others. However, in doing so, by associating these stock characters both with existential crises in the lives of the Buffy characters themselves and, through the use of metaphor, a universal state or condition that is common to all humanity, the show’s writers make the use of such characters their own. The werewolf (“Phases”) symbolizes the volatile moodiness of youth (and, in Buffy, emphasis is laid upon the humanity of the werewolf, which, after all, is human 27 days out of the month); the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde figure (“Beauty and the Beasts”) is a metaphor for the violent lover in an abusive relationship; the invisible girl in “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” is ignored by everyone else and thus represents the effects (and cruelty) of being excluded by one’s peers; the mummy in “Inca Mummy Girl” symbolizes a life sacrificed for others and is, therefore, a character whose predicament parallels that of Buffy herself, who longs to lead a normal life, but must often sacrifice her own desires for the welfare of others, including society and even humanity itself.

By employing these same techniques for generating storylines in one’s own fiction, a writer will find that he or she has a surfeit of plots rather than a few.

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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