Thursday, December 30, 2010

"The Damned Thing": Commentary, Part 2

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

As I indicated in my previous post, Ambrose Bierce’s short story “The Damned Thing” depends, for its effect, upon a fragmented and out-of-sequence timeline, the piecemeal exposition of facts that prevents the establishment of a context sufficiently clear to allow interpretation, the withholding of certain items of information, and the misdirection that results from Bierce’s incongruous, often tongue-in-cheek chapter titles, which have no bearing upon the chapters they introduce and, in fact, may suggest lines of thought that are themselves absurd and irrelevant.

However, Bierce accomplishes more than the generation of mystery and suspense through the use of these techniques. By employing these strategies, he also creates a metaphor by which he implies the theme of his story. The lack of context can be read as the vague, uncertain, and finite understanding of reality that derives from human perception that is itself limited to the phenomena that it perceives.

Bierce’s story’s reference to science is not accidental, for science is the primary and predominant means by which modern individuals ascertain knowledge, if not always truth, and it is science--the science of optics, to be precise--that allows Hugh Morgan to understand the nature of the Damned Thing as being of a color imperceptible to the human eye and thus invisible. However, since science is empirical, resting upon the senses and their perception of phenomena (including colors), it is itself limited to the perceptible world, and, in the final analysis, the nature of the Damned Thing must, therefore, remain essentially mysterious.

Bierce’s fragmented and vague narration, as it occurs in “The Damned Thing,” despite the presence of his omniscient narrator, is deliberate, symbolizing the limits of the scientific method’s reliance upon empirical data and emphasizing the finitude of human perception, cognition, and knowledge by underscoring his story’s victim’s inability to see the invisible adversary that ultimately slays him. Without a context, interpretation is difficult, if not impossible, and Morgan’s (and Harker’s) inability to see the Damned Thing prevents them from understanding it, just as it also prevents the pedestrian and unimaginative “farmers and woodsmen” who make up the inquest’s jury from accepting Harker’s account of the creature’s existence as true. They conclude, despite Harker’s eyewitness testimony, that Morgan was killed by a “mountain lion.” In short, they are unable to think outside the box, so to speak, that the accepted model of reality, based upon science, provides as the basis, or context, for interpreting perception and experience. Therefore, they conclude that Harker’s story demonstrates his madness.

Science tells us how to interpret the things that we perceive (see, hear, smell, taste, or touch), but limits upon human perception and the ignorance that results from such limits make certain knowledge problematic even under the best of circumstances and can (and has) resulted in erroneous and fantastic conclusions concerning even everyday matters. For example, before the invention of the microscope, bacteria and viruses existed, but, unaware of these germs or their functioning, human beings regarded demons, not microbes, as the causes of diseases and mental illnesses. Likewise, the Hubble space telescope has increased astronomers’ understanding of the universe exponentially since its launch in 1990.

Nevertheless, to some degree, we can (and do) hypothesize about experiences, even when knowledge about what we perceive (or do not perceive) is uncertain. For example, no one has seen an actual tyrannosaurus rex, but paleontologists claim to know quite a bit about this dinosaur (even if their “knowledge” is tentative and subject to change in the wake of new discoveries and conjectures). These gigantic animals are considered to have been carnivores with extremely powerful jaws, binocular vision, a bipedal posture, and a highly developed sense of smell. The young, some believe, possessed prototypical feathers, although more as insulation than for flight. In addition, they were believed, by some, to have been scavengers and even cannibals. Although they were once considered too slow-moving and “cold-blooded,” because of their massive size and weight, to be good hunters, scientists later revised this conception and suggested that the tyrannosaurus was more likely than not a fleet-footed predator.

One may argue that some features and abilities of the Damned Thing could likewise be determined by observing its effects on its environment. It is likely to be fast and physically powerful. It is obviously predatory. It is apt to be large, for Morgan’s diary reports that its passing momentarily blocked out the stars. Nevertheless, any ideas concerning the nature of the Damned Thing must remain as vague, uncertain, and finite as humanity’s understanding of reality that derives from perception that is itself limited to the phenomena that it perceives. Bierce’s fragmented and out-of-sequence timeline, his piecemeal exposition of facts that prevents the establishment of a context sufficiently clear to allow interpretation, his withholding of certain items of information, and the misdirection that results from Bierce’s incongruous, often tongue-in-cheek chapter titles, which have no bearing upon the chapters they introduce and, in fact, may suggest lines of thought that are themselves absurd and irrelevant all conspire, as it were, to symbolize and reinforce the epistemological limits of an intelligence that is informed by perceptions of phenomena that, as a rule, cannot be confirmed independently of the senses that detect them.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

"The Damned Thing": Bierce's Exercise in Existential Absurdity

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

The plot of Ambrose Bierce’s short story “The Damned Thing” is simple--so simple, in fact, that the author must rely upon a piecemeal presentation, in chopped chronological progression, of the narrative’s incidents. Bierce gives vague, and therefore intriguing, hints of something that has happened that is bigger, so to speak, than what is currently taking place, at the same time withholding details to keep the reader guessing as to what’s going on--and what has already gone on. The first paragraph introduces the reader to nine men, one of them a corpse, who have gathered in a small room. One of the men, seated at “a rough table,” reads from a book, by candlelight. There is an expectation, on the part of the men, other than “the dead man,” who is alone “without expectation.” The men, the reader learns, are locals, “farmers and woodsmen.”

By throwing together, as it were, a group of local men who seem to have nothing in common but their vocations, and informing the reader that something seems likely to happen, and soon, but otherwise withholding details that would create a context by which the action, such as it is at this point, could be interpreted, Bierce creates suspense. In addition, he characterizes the men as unimaginative and pedestrian, which will prove important, given the extraordinary incident that will soon be related by William Harker.

Only the man who reads from the book is unlike the others, a “worldly” man, a coroner, in fact, and the book he reads belonged to the dead man. It is, the reader will learn, the dead man’s diary, which was found in his cabin, which is the location in which “the inquest” concerning his death is “now taking place.” The casual manner in which Bierce presents the purpose of the local men’s gathering--an inquest into a man’s death--makes the revelation all the eerier.

Harker makes his appearance, his manner of dress marking him as a city dweller. The reader learns that he is a reporter; he arrives late to the inquest, he says, because he had “to post" to his newspaper "an account” of the incident concerning which he has been summoned to testify. Harker’s statement that he posted the account as fiction because it is too extraordinary for readers to accept as fact piques the reader’s interest, as does his declaration that he will, nevertheless, swear “under oath” as a witness at the inquest, that the story he tells is “true.” Again, Bierce provides just enough vague clues to keep the reader guessing--and reading.

As Harker begins his testimony, the reader learns that he had been visiting the deceased, Hugh Morgan, with whom he was hunting and fishing. In addition, Harker, admits, he was also observing Morgan, having found “his odd, solitary way of life” intriguing and supposing him to be “a good model for a character in fiction.”

In the second chapter of the story, Harker relates “the circumstances of” Morgan’s “death”: As they hunted quail, they heard “a noise as of some animal thrashing about in the bushes,” and saw that the vegetation was “violently agitated.” Morgan appeared frightened and immediately “cocked both barrels of his gun. . . holding it in readiness to aim.” As the men watch, “wild oats near the place of the disturbance” begin to move “in the most inexplicable way. . . . as if stirred by a streak of wind, which not only bent it, but pressed it down--crushed it so that it did not rise; and this movement was slowly prolonging itself directly toward” the two men. Morgan fires and flees, leaving Harker to fend for himself. Harker is “thrown violently to the ground by the impact of something unseen in the smoke,” and something knocks his own gun from his hands. As Harker looks on, Morgan seems to wrestle with an invisible creature. Before Harker can run to his friend’s aid, Morgan is killed, and the ripple and movement of the vegetation betrays the path of the invisible creature’s flight.

In the story’s third chapter, the condition of Morgan’s battered and bloody body is described as the coroner pulls the sheet that covers the corpse away; the dead man's clothing is “torn, and stiff with blood.” Despite the witness’ testimony, which the jury finds incredible, Morgan’s death is attributed to a mountain lion’s attack. Although Harker requests permission to peruse his dead friend’s diary, thinking that the public would be interested in Morgan’s writings, the coroner denies his request, claiming that it is irrelevant to its author’s demise, since “all the entries in it were made before the writer's death.”

Harker may not have been privy to the entries in Morgan’s diary, but the story’s omniscient narrator is, and he reveals to the reader that the journal contains “certain interesting entries having, possibly, a scientific value as suggestions.” Morgan had become convinced of “the presence” of an invisible intruder, and he had been terrified of the creature. However, he had resolved not to be chased away from his own home, believing, also, that God would consider his fleeing from the creature an act of cowardice. Thinking that he may be going insane, Morgan invites Harker to visit him for “several weeks,” to go hunting and fishing, thinking that, in Harker’s reactions to his own behavior, Morgan may find evidence to support either his own sanity or his own madness.

As if by “revelation,” Morgan discovers “the solution to the mystery” of the creature’s invisibility: just as there are sounds that the human ear cannot hear, there are colors that the human eye cannot see, and the invisible creature, or “the Damned Thing,” as Morgan has come to refer to the monster, “is of such a colour!”

A simple tale, “The Damned Thing” depends, for its effect, upon a fragmented and out-of-sequence timeline, the piecemeal exposition of facts that prevents the establishment of a context sufficiently clear to allow interpretation, the withholding of certain items of information, and the misdirection that results from Bierce’s incongruous, often tongue-in-cheek chapter titles, “Chapter I: One Does Not Always Eat What Is On The Table” (a corpse); “Chapter II: What May Happen In A Field Of Wild Oats” (an attack by an invisible creature!); “Chapter III: A Man Though Naked May Be In Rags” (an aphorism that suggests wisdom but introduces the final existential absurdity of death); and “Chapter IV: An Explanation From The Tomb” (the incongruity of the dead offering an elucidation of a text addressed to the living). Like the titles of Rene Magritte paintings, Bierce’s chapter titles have no bearing upon the chapters they introduce and, in fact, may suggest lines of thought that are themselves absurd and irrelevant.

Another way that Bierce withholds information, at least for a time, is to use synonymous phrases in lieu of characters' names or occupations.  For example, he refers to "a man [who] was reading," to "the man with the book"; to "the person reading," instead of to "the coroner"; he refers to "eight men," to "that company," to "farmers and woodsmen," rather than to the jurors of the death inquest; and to "a young man" instead of the inquest's witness.  In doing so, Bierce withholds, for a time, the nature of the enterprise in which the party is involved, thereby maintaining the mystery of the story and the tale's suspense.

Bierce’s reference to science is not accidental, for science is the primary and predominant means by which modern individuals ascertain knowledge, if not always truth, and it is science--the science of optics, to be precise--that allows Morgan to understand the nature of the Damned Thing as being of a color imperceptible to the human eye and thus invisible. However, since science, which is empirical, resting upon the senses and their perception of phenomena (including colors), is itself limited to the perceptible world, the nature of the Damned Thing must, in the final analysis, remain essentially mysterious.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

"The Flowering of the Strange Orchid": A Cautionary Tale

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

“The Flowering of the Strange Orchid” is a cautionary tale, the moral of which may not be so much that it’s not nice to fool with (or try to tame) Mother Nature as it is that Nature, despite her beauty, can be, and often is, treacherous, dangerous, and even deadly. The storyteller alludes to a study by Charles Darwin in which the naturalist discovered that “the whole structure of an ordinary orchid-flower was contrived in order that moths might carry the pollen from plant to plant.” The moth was important, in this scheme, as it were, only with regard to its role as a courier or, more accurately, a midwife. In the case of the strange orchid of H. G. Wells’ short story, the same seems to be true of human beings: the orchid collector Batten died that the orchid could live. The plant feeds upon blood, and it was Batten’s blood that it fed upon, killing him. The natives of the Andaman Islands preserved Batten’s collection of orchids, including the hemophiliac flower, until the dead collector’s colleague, an ornithologist, returned from a trip he had undertaken into the island’s interior to retrieve the flowers and bring them back to England.

Wells’ story is a slap in the face, so to speak, to those who believe that the universe is a product of divine design. Human beings, who fancy themselves the crown of God’s creation, are no more important or purposeful than the strange orchid that would survive by bleeding them to death, as it had Batten, whose death had been blamed on “jungle-leeches.” In fact, human beings are but a food source for the orchid, just as moths are midwives, so to speak, according to Darwin, to “an ordinary orchid-flower.” In themselves, human beings are often of little, if any, true value to the cosmos they inhabit, as the narrator’s description of the protagonist, Winter-Wedderburn, indicates:

He was a shy, lonely, rather ineffectual man, provided with just enough income to keep off the spur of necessity, and not enough nervous energy to make him seek any exacting employments.
Instead, Winter-Wedderburn busies himself with a hobby, the growing of orchids in his “one ambitious little hothouse,” a pastime no more significant or beneficial to humanity than any other such amusement as collecting “stamps or coins,” translating “Horace,” binding “books,” or inventing “new species of diatoms.” Everything that human beings do to pass their time is insignificant, Wells seems to imply, because human beings themselves are insignificant, just as are the orchids that the protagonist grows or any other life that the earth has spawned. The universe is absurd; therefore, everything in it, including life in general and human life in particular, is also meaningless and without value. As Winter-Wedderburn himself says, “Nothing ever does happen to me,” and the things that do happen to others are of no real significance; during the past week, Harvey, an acquaintance of Winter-Wedderburn, to whom things do happen, “picked up sixpence. . . his chicks had staggers. . . his cousin came home from Australia. . . and he broke his ankle.”

Nevertheless, plants, like human beings, struggle to survive, the strange orchid extracting blood from its hosts as “an nary orchid-flower” attracts moths to carry its pollen among itself and its neighboring plants. The functions of organisms, whether the collection of coins or stamps, the raising of orchids, the attraction of pollinating moths, or the bleeding of human hosts, are all without any more purpose than the absurd struggle of the species for its survival.

Ironically, believing that it was “jungle-leeches” that drained Batten’s blood, the protagonist tells his housekeeper, the strange orchid may have been “the very plant that cost him his life to obtain,” and, at the end of the story, it is his own death-struggle with the orchid that, giving him something to talk about, revitalizes his pathetic existence, saving his own life, as it were. His housekeeper rescues Winter-Wedderburn from the orchid, as it feeds upon his blood, allowing him to live to tell the tale:

The next morning the strange orchid still lay there, black now and putrescent. The door banged intermittingly in the morning breeze, and all the array of Wedderburn’s orchids was shriveled and prostrate. But Wedderburn himself was bright and garrulous upstairs in the story of his strange adventure.
As is often the case with Well’s shorter fiction, the true horror is beneath the surface of the story, not so much in the incidents as in what they suggest. In this case, the story’s action implies that human existence, which occurs in an absurd universe in which the struggle for existence is meaningless, is purposeless and pathetic. What would have been lost had the strange orchid’s flowering led to the death of the tale’s protagonist? Very little. His insignificance, like that of the story’s readers, is the true horror of “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid.”

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Ironic Endings

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

In “Spectral Forms,” a chapter of The Gothic Vision: Three Centuries of Horror, Terror, and Fear, Dani Cavallaro presents an observation with which, one might expect, most readers would agree: “Many people would probably be disinclined to confront disembodied voices and floating shapes, let alone share a dwelling with them.” However, having established this seemingly self-evident premise, she introduces “some potentially amusing exceptions, not only in fiction but also in real life,” one of which is recounted in Karen Farrington’s The History of the Supernatural and involves a homeowner who, disappointed that his recently purchased house has not lived up to its reputation, so to speak, of being haunted, sues the seller for what amounts to fraud (79).

Cavallaro’s example provides the basis for introducing a spin or a twist to one’s tale, which, although simple, is, or can be, effective, depending upon one’s treatment of it: suggest that one’s narrative will be resolved in one direction, but end the story in the opposite way. Such an approach depends upon the use of situational irony that is effected through the human mind’s seemingly natural tendency to think in, and, indeed, to create, polarities. The one to which Farrington, through Cavallaro, alludes involves that of the undesirable (the rule, as it were, which applies to interacting with “disembodied voices and floating shapes”) and the desirable (the “exception” to this rule, represented by the disappointed homeowner’s hope of encountering a ghost in the supposedly haunted house he’s recently purchased).

To apply this formula to other narratives, which may or may not involve ghosts or rumors of ghosts, a writer need only to construct a pair of opposites, drive his or her narrative toward one of the two possibilities for resolution, so that, unexpectedly, the story ends in the opposite manner to that which the author has led the reader to expect the tale will conclude. Alfred Hitchcock does this in Psycho. Encouraging viewers to assume that Norman Bates' mother has committed murder, the resolution of the plot shares the secret that it is the protagonist himself, who, impersonating his deceased mother, kills his victims. The movie The Others, directed by Alejandro Amenábar and starring Nicole Kidman as Grace Newman, is an example of this technique at work as well. The film suggests that Grace and her children are haunted by a family of ghosts when, in fact, as it turns out, it is she and her children who are the ghosts who haunt the house’s human tenants. Likewise, in The Sixth Sense, directed by M. Night Shyamalan and starring Bruce Willis as Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist, who helps Cole Sear, a disturbed boy with dark secrets and claims to see ghosts, one of these phantoms, as it turns out, is Crowe himself, who has returned from the dead, after having been murdered by another patient, named Vincent, to assist Cole and to find closure for his own previous existence.

Shyamalan is a notoriously uneven director with more failures than successes to his credit, and his unsuccessful ventures, Lady in the Water and The Happening in particular, show how an inept handling of situational irony results in the introduction of a plot twist that leaves an audience disappointed and annoyed rather than satisfied.

Rather than constituting an integral part of the overall plot, many of the director’s endings appear tacked on, as it were, solely to deliver the supposed surprise for which he and his films have become known. The surprise endings are forced to fit, having become the trademark for his films.

To the contrary, Psycho, The Others, and, yes, even The Sixth Sense represent effective ways to employ situational irony to create a surprise ending; in each case, the endings issue from the characters of the protagonists: Norman Bates’ transvestism is a manifestation of his dead mother’s unbreakable hold upon his ego; Grace Newman’s guilt in murdering her own children caused her to kill herself and to spend what appears to be purgatory for her sins; Malcolm Crowe comes back from the dead the business of the living which has led to his own untimely demise and his failed marriage.

The twist ending to The Happening (a toxin secreted by plants who are mad as hell and are not going to take it anymore from environmentally insensitive people who pollute the planet are causing people to go insane and kill themselves) has no bearing upon the personal crisis of the protagonist (whose problem appears to be that his wife had lunch with a male coworker). Thousands of years ago, in Poetics, Aristotle wrote of the necessity for the end of a narrative to be integral to everything that precedes it rather than being a dues ex machina that unrealistically and illogically concludes the tale. This is a lesson lost on the likes of Shyamalan, apparently, but, when a plot twist is executed with finesse, it can introduce a surprise ending that both jolts and satisfies. The films of Alfred Hitchcock, Alejandro Amenábar, and, indeed, Shayamalan (at one time, for a film or two) are proof of this.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Implications of the Fantastic

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

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 say that the works belong to another genre; 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 (41).

Indeed we distinguish, within the literary Gothic, two tendencies: that of the supernatural explained (the “uncanny”). . . and that of the supernatural accepted (the “marvelous”) (41-42).

-- Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre
Whatever one may think about Todorov’s theory of the fantastic, he or she would likely admit that the philosopher does a good job, for the most part, in defining his terms. The fantastic is either the supernatural or the apparently supernatural, depending upon whether it is resolved as explicable in terms of “‘reality’ as it exists in the common opinion” (that is, as the “uncanny,” or “supernatural explained”) or it remains inexplicable (that is, “marvelous”).

One of the terms that is not as explicitly defined is “‘reality’ as it exists in the common opinion.” This term is more vague, although, within the context of the other terms’ definitions, its meaning is fairly clear, referring, it seems, to the scientific world view in which the universe is synonymous with nature, cause-and-effect relationships govern all events, knowledge is obtained through the application of the scientific method, and the results of this method of inquiry are codified in theoretical principles often called “laws of nature,” “laws of thermodynamics,” “laws of physics,” and so forth. It is “reality” in this sense upon which the fantastic itself is predicated, Todorov says, and which the fantastic actually supports:

The reader and the hero, as we have seen, must decide if a certain event or phenomenon belongs to reality or the imagination, that is, must determine whether or not it is real. It is therefore the category of the real which has furnished a basis for our definition of the fantastic.
. . . Far from being a praise of the imaginary. . . the literature of the fantastic posits the majority of a text as belonging to reality--or, more specifically, as provoked by reality (167-168).
It is also for this reason that the literature of the fantastic ultimately reaches its end, or, as Todorov declares:
Today, we can no longer believe in an immutable, external reality, nor in a literature which is merely the transcription of such a reality. . . . Fantastic literature itself--which on every page subverts linguistic categorizations--has received a fatal blow from these very categorizations (168).
In short, as I myself suggest in “Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?”:
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.
 However, in general, individuals follow, rather than lead, developments in cultural and theoretical paradigm shifts. The cultural Weltanschauung changes, usually centuries before, the individual’s world view, and what is accepted among the elite of specialized communities such as those of academics, scientists, and philosophers usually becomes accepted much more slowly, often centuries later, in fact, if ever, by the general public. For this reason, outmoded views of the “reality” of which Todorov speaks continue to inform and to direct, if not determine, their thoughts, behavior, and, to a lesser degree, perhaps, their feelings. For them, such divisions as those listed below will continue, more or less, to hold sway:

The Fantastic (or what might be called the “supernatural undecided”): The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, The Shining (film version; directed by Stanley Kubrick), The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (Stephen King), The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson). 

The Uncanny (“supernatural explained”): “The Red Room” (H. G. Wells), The Island of Dr. Moreau (H. G. Wells), The Food of the Gods (H. G. Wells), The Invisible Man (H. G. Wells), Hide and Seek (film, directed by Ari Schlossberg), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Jules Verne), Frankenstein (Mary Shelley), King Kong (film, directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack), Subterranean (James Rollins), Relic (Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child), Watchers (Dean Koontz), The Tommyknockers (Stephen King), Swan Song (Robert McCammon), The Funhouse (film, directed by Tobe Hooper). 

The Marvelous ("supernatural accepted" as such): “1408” (Stephen King), “Dracula’s Guest” (Bram Stoker), “A Christmas Carol” (Charles Dickens), It (Stephen King), ‘Salem’s Lot (Stephen King), Carrie (Stephen King), Desperation (Stephen King), The Taking (Dean Koontz), Summer of Night (Dan Simmons), Fires of Eden (Dan Simmons), The Green Mile (Stephen King), Silver Bullet (Stephen King), The Exorcist (William Peter Blatty), Dracula (Bram Stoker), The University (Bentley Little).

Such a division also has the benefit of allowing authors, critics, and readers the ability to discern, in short order, whether a writer’s oeuvre tends more toward the fantastic, the uncanny, or the marvelous.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

“The Apparitional Lesbian” as a Key to Interpreting “Out of Sight, Out of Mind”

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Marcie Ross performs her disappearing act.

According to Lucie Armitt’s “Ghosts and (Narrative) Ghosting,” Terry Castle regards “the image of the apparition as a key leitmotif for closet lesbianism in literary history.” “When it comes to lesbians,” Castle writes in The Apparitional Lesbian, “many people have trouble seeing what’s in front of them” (Contemporary Women’s Fiction and the Fantastic, 106). This insight offers a key to unlocking a deeper meaning to “Out of Sight, Out of Mind,” an episode of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series that has hitherto come to light.

Usually, this episode is regarded as offering, in the form of a cautionary tale, a lesson, so to speak, concerning the dangers that can result from the bullying--in the case of this episode, mostly through ignoring or insulting--of someone who, for whatever reason (or no reason) doesn’t fit the mold of other people’s narrow-minded perceptions as to how one should dress, speak, and act. The victim, Marcie Ross, becomes literally invisible after she is repeatedly ignored or overlooked by her high school and teachers and is rebuffed by the cliques she seeks to join. No reason is given for her rejection other than that she doesn’t measure up to the ideas of those with whom she tries to communicate or whom she seeks to befriend.

Castle’s insight, however, offers a subtext for understanding why Marcie may have been rejected that goes beyond the issue of personal popularity (or the lack thereof), or at least addresses this issue from a different, perhaps more significant, perspective: Marcie is rejected by others because she is homosexual, or lesbian. Once this possibility is entertained, it finds support among other element’s of the episodes plot, including characters’ actions and other behaviors.

Cordelia Chase, who is arguably the sexiest and most beautiful of Sunnydale High School’s students, and who is competing for the coveted title of May Queen, attracts Marcie’s ire, which Marcie directs not at Cordelia herself but at Cordelia’s boyfriend, Mitch, whom Marcie attacks with a baseball bat as Mitch is dressing in the boys’ locker room--an obviously male bastion--possibly because Marcie, enamored of Cordelier, is jealous of Mitch, who has succeeded where Marcie herself has failed, having won Cornelia’s affections.

Across the face of several lockers, Marcie scrawls the word “LOOK!” Some regard this text as a message to those who have ignored her, as if she were commanding the attention that others have denied her, and, certainly, this interpretation makes sense. However, in the context of the understanding of the episode’s significance that is implied by positing Marcie’s rejection by others specifically because of her lesbianism, the message might be focused more upon her rejection of men, and Mitch, as Cordelia’s beau, in particular, as if, in having attacked her male rival for Cordelia’s affections, Marcie is issuing a warning to other presumptuous would-be suitors of the May Queen candidate. The message could also be more general: look at the results of homophobia when the target of such bigotry strikes back.

Her attack upon Mitch is not only a blow to the power of the patriarchy, but it is also a strike against heterosexuality. In both cases, Marcie, a female who prefers other females to males, delivers a blow to a majority of her peers with whom she, alienated from them because of her own sexual orientation, if not her gender per se, can never be a part. Her homosexual assault on a male in the boys’ locker room must be contrasted with heterosexual Xander Harris’ statement as to how he would use the power of invisibility, were he to have the ability: “I’d protect the girls’ locker room.” Where Xander would protect girls in an all-female environment, Marcie attacks a boy in a male bastion.

In a flashback, Marcie is ignored (that is, rejected) by both Cordelia and Harmony Kendall, Cordelia’s best friend, when Marcie approaches the other girls while they are discussing whether Cordelia is interested in dating Mitch now that he has broken up with a girl named Wendy. Marcie launches an attack upon Harmony, pushing her down the stairs at school, just as, earlier, Marcie had attacked Mitch with the baseball bat. Was Marcie’s attack an act of revenge upon the girl, Harmony, who had apprised Cordelia of Mitch’s availability when Marcie herself may have hoped to become Cordelia’s girlfriend?

Perhaps intentionally (although seemingly inadvertently), Marcie makes her presence known to Buffy (the latest object of her infatuation?) by playing a flute. In ancient Greece, women were sometimes represented as playing the flute in settings reserved for the gathering of men, such as banquets. In one such scene, by a Bygos painter, dated 480 B. C., which is now housed in the British Museum, a youth at a banquet pushes aside a flute-playing girl so that he will have a better view of the target--a nude young man--at whom he aims a missile. His pushing aside the woman who plays the phallic instrument seems to suggest that he rejects her offer of sexual favors in favor of the naked youth. Marcie, as a phallic woman of sorts, offers similar sexual favors to her female schoolmates, but she is rejected by them as well. The flute (her masculinity, as it were) both lures, but also causes her rejection by, others of her own sex. In this sense, she is the rejected flute girl in the ancient Greek banquet scene, transported to modern America and transformed into an aggressive, dominant suitor of present-day young women. The link between flute-playing girls in ancient Greece and Marcie, a present-day flute-playing girl in Sunnydale, California may seem a stretch, but the episode itself makes a connection in Xander’s speculation that Marcie owes her power of invisibility to cloaks that confer invisibility upon their wearers--the gods of ancient Greece.

In the next scene, as Buffy, having followed the sound of the flute, discovers Marcie’s hideout, Marcie herself attacks a teacher, Mrs. Miller, attempting to suffocate her with a plastic bag. Marcie’s motive? Mrs. Miller is not just any teacher; she is Cordelia’s English teacher, who has shown Cordeila a good amount of attention in class and who has agreed to meet with Cordelia after class on the day that Marcie arrives, just before Cordelia’s appointment, to suffocate her. Perhaps Marcie is jealous of the attention that Mrs. Miller has shown the object of Marcie’s own romantic interest or perhaps Marcie sees the teacher as a potential rival for Cordelia’s affections. In either case, it seems that Marcie’s attack upon the teacher is motivated by Marcie’s unrequited lesbian love for the May Queen candidate. Adding insult to injury, it is Cordelia who saves Mrs. Miller, arriving in time to remove the bag from her head before the teacher suffocates--and in time to see Marcie’s latest message, written on the chalkboard of what might have been the scene of the school’s second murder: “LISTEN.” The basis of Cordelia’s relationship, that of student and teacher, with Mrs. Miller is primarily verbal communication, in which the two take turns listening to one another; it seems clear that Marcie is making it know that she wants to be the one to whom Cordelia speaks and the one to whom Cordelia, in turn, listens. Speaking and listening, for Marcie, seems to represent more than mere communication. Conversation, from which she is always excluded, represents relationships.

The fact that Cordelia is competing for the title of May Queen is also significant, for Cordelia’s entry in the contest seems to have been the inciting moment, as it were, that sparks Marcie’s attacks. Marcie had not resorted to violence before now, although, as the episode’s flashbacks make it clear, she has been ignored, rejected, and insulted on several occasions well before the May Day contest. The competition, however, draws attention to Cordelia, casting her in the light of a beautiful woman rather than merely a popular peer. Cordelia’s popularity is joined with an emphasis upon her beauty and sex appeal by her participation in the contest, which, it seems likely, she will win, as does Cordelia’s recent dating of the athletic and manly Mitch. Indeed, another person who attracts Marcie’s attention, Buffy Summers herself, was the winner of a similar competition at the high school Buffy had previously attended. Although it is true that Buffy is also Cordelia’s protector, Buffy is also an attractive young woman who allies herself with Cordelia rather than with Marcie.

Willow Rosenberg, who, ironically, becomes or (depending upon one’s point of view concerning the matter) discovers her own homosexuality later in the series, finds that, like everyone else to whom Marcie had presented her high school yearbook, she has signed it “Have a great summer,” a throw-away--indeed, dismissive--pseudo-sentiment that, Xander informs the audience, is “the kiss of death.” As it turns out, the line is almost the seal of their own deaths, for Marcie lures Willow, Xander, and Buffy’s mentor, the school’s librarian, Rupert Giles, into the boiler room, where she locks them, after opening a gas valve so that their place of confinement will fill with the deadly fumes. Their ignoring (that is, rejection) of Marcie becomes her “kiss of death” to them.

Having won the May Day competition, Cordelia dresses for the award ceremony, and Marcie knocks her out. However, Buffy, who serves as Cordelia’s bodyguard, discovers her unconscious charge. Before Buffy can act, Marcie jabs her with a needle and injects her with a sedative. The girls awaken, strapped into chairs, the word “LEARN” on a curtain before them. Marcie, who has supplied herself with an array of surgical instruments, informs her captive audience that Cordelia herself will become the object lesson, after Marcie uses her instruments to carve up the beauty queen’s face. However, after Marcie cuts Cordelia with a scalpel, drawing blood, Buffy kicks the surgical tray from the attacker’s hands, frees herself, and does battle with the invisible girl. Buffy, who, the series makes abundantly clear through her multiple romantic liaisons with powerful males of unquestionable masculinity and virility, such as Angel, Spike, and Riley Finn, is heterosexual, takes on the lesbian threat in single, hand-to-hand combat, ironically using her sense of hearing to locate her invisible opponent, whom she defeats by revealing her presence in shoving her into a curtain that falls over and drapes Marcie, allowing Buffy to knock her out.

The method by which Buffy wins the fight with Marcie--listening--symbolizes, for Marcie, both interpersonal relationships and attention, and is becomes the vehicle, as it were, for Marcie’s possible redemption, for, following her defeat and capture, she is led away by government agents to a clandestine school for spies, where, as a new student among other invisible classmates, her first lesson, as her textbook’s title implies, is Assassination and Infiltration, specialties in which she has already demonstrated some expertise. The episode’s conclusion suggests that there is a place in society for Marcie and others of her kind--the “apparitional lesbians” of whom Castle writes--but it is not a place in which she can be visible (that is, be accepted as herself). To be accepted, even tacitly, she must remain in the closet, hidden and invisible, an apparition. In seeking an explanation for Marcie’s condition, Giles speculates that her invisibility has been caused, in fact, by her being ignored and rejected by her peers. According to a principle of physics, he says, the perceptions of the group can alter or mold reality itself, as has been the case, he thinks, with Marcie: her peers’ perceptions of her as virtually non-existent have caused her to become invisible to others. The conclusion of the episode reinforces Giles’ observation, concluding with Marcie’s marginal acceptance as a closeted, or “apparitional,” lesbian.

The series’ later transformation Willow into a lesbian (or its revelation of her homosexuality) and that of the minor characters Larry Blaisdell and Scott Hope, as well as Willow’s protracted lesbian affairs with Tara Maclay and Kennedy are further indications that Marcie Ross’ motive may have been to avenge her rejection by her peers because of her lesbianism, since such storylines demonstrate the Joss Whedon’s interest in same-sex themes. At the same time, Marcie’s treatment invites the same sort of criticism as the treatment that the series’ writers gave to Willow’s homosexuality and its expressions. Homosexuals do not fare well in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and some contend that there is a reason for it: the writers’ own homophobia. Tara is killed, Willow grieves, Scott spreads rumors that Buffy is gay, and, when Larry is killed during a fight with his hometown’s demonic mayor, Willow dismisses him by telling Amy Madison (who, in the form of a rat, has been out of action for several years, in protective custody inside a cage in Willow’s bedroom), that Larry won’t be taking her to the prom, as she’d hoped, because “Larry’s gay, Larry’s dead, and high school’s kind of over.”

The mixed messages that Buffy the Vampire Slayer delivers concerning gays mirrors the ambiguity that surrounds them in contemporary society. The series, despite its boldness in delving into thorny social and political issues (albeit often in the disguised forms of demons, ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and witches), is as much a mirror of its times, in many ways, as it is a corrective lens, and this ambiguity is as apparent in its depiction of gays and lesbians as it is in its portrayal of other minorities and their causes. Sometimes, when television crusades instead of entertains, it becomes more propagandistic, whatever its momentary view might be than it is educational. As long as viewers are aware of this and don’t take their television shows too seriously, an episode like “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” is fairly good fare, even with its “apparitional lesbian.”

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Adaptation of the Gothic

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

South cloister of Gloucester Cathedral, looking eastwards.  By William Avery.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Images of the Gothic no longer haunt us, perhaps, as they did earlier generations. Americans, in particular, do not identify much with aristocratic living or, for that matter, peasantry. Most Americans live in apartments or single-family dwellings. Their houses, although often spacious, are seldom the size of castles, and Americans are more likely to be haunted by natural, as opposed to supernatural, events. War, sickness, broken relationships, the deaths of loved ones, upward mobility, taxes, and the heartbreak of psoriasis are apt to frighten Americans more than things that go bump in the night.

Writers like Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Dan Simmons, Robert McCammon, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and James Rollins have survived the decline of fantastic literature in general and of horror fiction in particular by adapting the Gothic in various ways. King and Little bring it to contemporary small-town or rural America, substituting mansions, hotels, universities, and resorts for castles and middle-class neighbors for the peasantry. The nobility is pretty much gone from the picture altogether, with the exception of such stand-ins as occasional politicians, celebrities, and business tycoons. Koontz’s fiction adapts the fantastic and the horrific to modern life, too, but, in doing so, makes both the fantastic and the horrific merely elements of a more inclusive, “cross-genre” body of fiction that includes elements of such other genres as romance, science fiction, adventure, thrillers, and mystery. He even includes, more often than not, a dog of a purer and nobler character than any of his protagonists is likely to develop.

Simmons’ Summer of Night, a slow starter, is a rewarding read similar to King’s It, and other of his early novels tread ground that is likewise familiar to Gothic and contemporary readers alike as well: vampires (Carrion Comfort), ghosts (A Winter‘s Haunting), and even an irate volcano goddess (Fires of Eden). His more recent work, when it has dealt with horror rather than with science fiction, has reworked Gothic themes (Drood) or historical events (The Terror). McCammon’s novels often deal with sociological (The Sting) or psychological (Mine!) themes, especially as they relate to growing up (Boy’s Life). Preston and Child introduce elements of the police procedural and the thriller into their uncanny fiction by having the FBI’s Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast solve unusual, X-Files-type crimes that often take the reader into such exotic locales as museums, subway and sewer systems, cruise ships, Buddhist monasteries, and dream worlds, at the same time acquainting fans with specialized and esoteric knowledge about ancient artifacts, engineering marvels, the maritime trade, the finer points of Zen, and astral projection. Rollins brings special forces personnel into stories set in Amazon jungles, subterranean worlds, and other places similar to those of his literary mentors, the Doc Savage authors, Edgar Rice Burroughs, L. Frank Baum, C. S. Lewis, H. G. Wells, and Jules Verne.

The Gothic elements, although transformed, persist not so much in imagery as in mood and tone. Darkness. Shadows. Monstrous faces appearing out of the gloom. Fog. Images of decadence and death. Hints of a stranger, deeper cosmos beyond the familiar, everyday world. Portals to nowhere--and everywhere. Wraiths and apparitions that may be merely imaginary. Intimations of immortality. Mysterious ruins. Beautiful, but deadly, women. Hideous, half-seen shapes. The falling of divine judgment, like lightning, at the stroke of midnight. Time out of joint and space deformed. The themes and images may be interpreted to fit the prejudices and needs of the day, but they remain eternally Gothic, even when they are disguised.


Saturday, November 6, 2010

Hear ye! Hear Ye!

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add a note to the end of my "Paranormal or Supernatural: What's the Diff?" essay at the bottom of this page. It's quite interesting, if I do say so myself, and worth a perusal.

Horror Fiction and Weltanschauungs

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

In an earlier post, I suggested that horror fiction awakens its readers from complacency about themselves, their lives, and life in general and, by reminding them of the things (for example, life and limb, family and friends, love and health), that matter most, serves as a rough guide to the good life.

It does.

However, horror fiction produces other equally profound effects as well.

As cultures, communities, and individuals, we develop Weltanschauungs, or worldviews, upon which, in large measure, we base our attitudes and from which, to some degree, spring our actions. Some such views are religious, others are philosophical, and still others are a hodge-podge of rather unexamined and even conflicting beliefs based upon untested assumptions and traditional folkways and mores. Horror fiction puts these views of the world, whether collective or individual, to the test, often showing how, in some way or another, these understandings of self, other, and world are mistaken, incomplete, or false.

By categorizing experience, we make sense of the world and of ourselves. The appearance of an anomaly threatens the categories of our understanding: the Euglena, which has both the chloroplasts of the plant and the cell wall of the animal, threatens our division of organisms into plants and animals; the hermaphrodite, which has the genitals of both sexes, imperils our concepts of sex and gender; the monster upsets our understanding of normality; the alien challenges our ideas about our place in the scheme of things and our belief that we may be the only intelligent life in the universe.

When possible, we seek to accommodate the anomaly. If we cannot do so, we must modify our scheme, as scientists are said to do with regard to their paradigms: When science is unable to account for an anomaly (a fact that doesn’t fit the existing scientific model of reality), it reevaluates and makes appropriate changes to the model, or paradigm, as may occur with discoveries of new species, whether in the field or as the result of the application of new inventions (e. g., the scanning electron microscope, the Hubble telescope, and onboard satellite cameras have enabled scientists to see data that had been previously undetectable to them) or the as the result of the adoption of revolutionary theories such as Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, which replaced the theories of Sir Isaac Newton and Galileo Galilei. Sometimes, horror fiction has such a result.

More often, horror fiction’s anomalies are not directed as much at apparent violations of known scientific theories and principles as they are at violations, as it were, of human (i. e., personal, political, cultural, moral, philosophical, and religious) beliefs. The monsters of horror fiction are threats not so much to formal and expert worldviews as to personal and communal (or, sometimes, even idiosyncratic) understandings of the world and of one’s place in it. The “world,” in this sense, is apt to be much smaller, much less well-defined, and largely untested or, for that matter, even less well- known, than the world as it is understood (some might say as it is constructed) by the scientific community, consisting, for example, of families, friends, and coworkers and the organizations and institutions that bind these groups together and to oneself and to the values, beliefs, principles, attitudes, opinions, and emotions that derive from such a conglomeration of persons, places, and things, many of which are understood only vaguely and partially. (For example, how many Americans can analyze the Constitution as well as a Constitutional lawyer or scholar or, for that matter, can specify its contents in any detail or can recite the Apostle’s Creed or name all nine of the Supreme Court justices?)

Often, the anomaly (i. e., the monster) in horror stories appears not as the thing itself that he, she, or it represents (monsters are metaphors, after all), but in disguise. For example, the monster in Stephen King’s Cujo is adultery, which destroys a family, but it appears in the form of a rabid St. Bernard; likewise, alcoholism and child abuse are the true monsters of King’s novel The Shining, but they appear in the forms of ghosts. These monsters threaten the sanctity of the home and try the fidelity of the protagonists’ alleged values. Does Donna Trenton love her husband and son well enough to stay faithful to her marriage vows when temptation, in the form of itinerant repairman Steve Kemp, arrives on the scene? Will Jack Torrance choose his wife and son over his alcoholism and narcissism? Will the value of family, as reinforced by the institutions of marriage, law, and religious belief, win against the inner demons of the self, or, in Freudian terms, the monsters of the id? Sometimes, the forces of civilization and culture do win. Sometimes, they lose.

Whether the monster wins or loses, though, its threatening appearance has the effect of reminding the reader, who is expected to identify, to some extent, with the protagonist of the tale, of what’s at stake and of the consequences--death, destruction, injury, damage--to self and society that may result even if the monster doesn’t win. If the protagonist survives, a chink or weakness in his or her armor has been exposed, which may (or may not) be repaired (or reparable). If he or she does not survive, the reader does and may examine his or her own armor for chinks or weaknesses before the monster’s true-life counterpart, whether adultery, alcoholism, child abuse, or something else as evil appears, and it’s too late.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

"The Judge's House": An Example of Gothic Technique

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Bram Stoker, the author of the novel Dracula and the short story “Dracula‘s Guest,” also wrote many horrific short stories other than “Dracula‘s Guest,” one of which is “The Judge’s House,” which, having fallen into the public domain, may be read, free, on several websites.

“The Judge’s House” is the subject of this post. However, before turning our attention to it, a few words concerning its author and the story in general seem to be in order.

Stoker, who as born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1847, died in London, England, in 1912. Between these fateful years, he wrote not only Dracula, which secured his literary fame, but also ten other novels and numerous short stories, yet, except for Dracula (and more as a character than as a work of fiction), he is largely unknown and underappreciated.

According to Michael Kelahan’s “Introduction” to Dracula’s Guest & Other Tales of Horror (New York, NY: Fall River Press, 2010), Stoker graduated “with honors in mathematics” from Trinity College, at which enrolled “at age seventeen.” (The protagonist of “The Judge’s House” is a mathematics student, too, possibly at Cambridge University.) A ghost story, “The Judge’s House” is (like H. G. Wells’ “The Red Room,”) a study in Gothic technique, the use of setting to create suspense, and the application of a particular narrative formula--that of the horror tale--to a work of fiction. It is these points--technique, suspense, and formula--that I propose to discuss as I summarize Stoker’s haunting tale.

To differentiate my comments from my summary of Stoker’s story, I will include them in red font.

The story begins with protagonist Malcolm Malcolmson’s intentional isolation of himself from both his friends and “friends’ friends,” the better to devote himself to his preparation for an upcoming mathematics examination. To this end, he travels for three days, to Benchurch, where he rents an out-of-the-way, uninhabited Jacobean residence that appears “more a fortified house than an ordinary dwelling.” The house has stood idle for “a term of years,” with the result that it has acquired an unpleasant reputation, or “absurd prejudice.”

A ploy of the horror writer is to refer to an unsettling or unsavory reputation regarding a supposed place of evil, as Stoker does here. The servants in H. G. Wells’ short story “The Red Room” likewise declare that the castle that the protagonist visits is said to be haunted, and they give credence to the rumors, believing them to be true. In the movie based upon Stephen King’s short story, “1408,” the hotel’s manager also warns the protagonist (numerous times) that the room in which he wants to spend the night is haunted. In all three cases, the cautions fall upon deaf ears, as is, again, the traditional response (or non-response) of the main character to such warnings. Of course, such statements are a means of foreshadowing: through them, the author has all but promised the reader that something terrible will happen soon.

Asking the advice of the inn’s landlady, Mrs. Witham, as to what “stores and provisions” he is apt to need uring his proposed three-months’ stay, he horrifies her by announcing his intention of staying in “the Judge’s house,” which, she assures him, was home to a “judge who was held in great terror on account of his harsh sentences” and confesses that she would not stay in the house for even “one hour,” even for “all the money in Drinkwater’s Bank.”

Many tales of haunted houses associate the domicile with past evil or with a previous owner, such as the judge, who committed despicable acts or atrocities. The suggestion of such associations is that the past evil or previous owner is somehow the cause of the present evil.

The servants in Wells’ story also tell their guest that there is no way that they would stay in the haunted room and plead with him not to do so, either, just as Mrs. Witham suggests to Malcolm that renting the judge’s house is ill-advised. Such counsel is another of the haunted house conventions, and it is as operative in contemporary tales as it was in Gothic literature.

The student tells her that, although her concern touches him, she need not worry about him, because he will have no time to worry about “mysterious ‘somethings,’ and his work is of too exact and prosaic a kind to allow his having any corner in his mind for mysteries of any kind.”

Typically, the protagonist is a hardheaded realist and thoroughgoing skeptic. Often, he or she is a scientist. A mathematician is an appropriate alternative, and, we should remember, Stoker himself was a student of mathematics during his college days.

Malcolm takes up residence in the house’s enormous dining room, where Mrs. Witham, a charwoman named Mrs. Dempster, and “several men and boys” set him up with furniture and provisions, Mrs. Witham suggesting that he put a screen around his “bed at night,” to ward off chilly draughts of air, although she herself would be too afraid of the “things” that might “put their heads round the sides, or over the top” to spy upon her as she slept. Her talk so disturbs her that she flees the house, much to Mrs. Dempster’s disdain. Unlike the inn’s landlady, the charwoman is, she says, unafraid of “all the bogies in the kingdom.”

Mrs. Witham is characterized as a superstitious person, prone to fear even imaginary “bogies,” as her opposite, or foil, the skeptical Mrs. Dempster refers to things that go bump in the night. Her foolish fears suggest that, perhaps, Malcolm is right to be skeptical about the reputation of the judge’s house. Perhaps we should be skeptical as well.

Mrs. Dempster’s own bravery derives, she suggests, from her knowledge that apparent “bogies” are really nothing more than natural phenomena that are misunderstood or unidentified:

“I’ll tell you what it is, sir,” she said; “bogies is all kinds and sorts of things--except bogies! Rats and mice, and beetles; and creaky doors, and loose slates, and broken panes, and stiff drawer handles, that stay out when you pull them and then fall down in the middle of the night.”
Mrs. Dempster is much of the same mind concerning “bogies” as Malcolm, and, as a recipient of charity who is forbidden, upon the pain of the loss of her benefits, from sleeping anywhere other than the home that has been provided for her, free of charge, she has good reason to refuse to stay the night at the judge’s house. However, her situation may seem a bit too convenient to readers. Although true, her reason for not spending the night in the isolated house prevents her from witnessing or, worse, experiencing any of the phenomena that allegedly occur on the premises at night. She can, in short, afford her skepticism, for it costs her nothing and need not be put to the test.

Moreover, her doubt adds another element to Stoker’s story that is typical of its genre, which is that incidents that are alleged to be supernatural must be explainable, in principle, at least, by reference to natural causes so that it is possible to read the same story from two perspectives--the natural and the supernatural--at the same time.

After the charwoman cleans the house and lays Malcolm’s meal, she returns home, leaving the student to his studies. He prepares for the examination until eleven o’clock at night, when he pauses to stoke the fire and make some tea. As he enjoys the beverage, he hears “for the first time what a noise the rats” are “making.” He supposes that the rats have been quiet until now because they’d been intimidated by his presence and the fire, but have since grown accustomed to both and are “now disporting themselves as” is “their wont.” Sure enough, as he finds later, in examining the room more closely, there are rats in the walls: “Here and there as he went round he saw some crack or hole blocked for a moment by the face of a rat with bright eyes glittering in the light” of his lamp. What impresses him most, however, is the “great alarm bell on the roof,” which Mrs. Witham had mentioned to him previously, in passing: it is suspended “in a corner of the room on the right-hand side of the fireplace.”

The presence of rats, especially following Mrs. Dempster’s earlier declaration that “bogies is all kinds and sorts of things--except bogies”--“rats and mice” included, provides a natural explanation for seemingly otherworldly incidents as an alternative to a belief in the supernatural.

Returning to his studies, Malcolm forgets the rats, the alarm bell rope, and everything else, until, hours later, he is disturbed by the sudden cessation of the noise of the rats in the walls. He is even more disturbed to see “on the great high-backed carved oak chair by the right side of the fireplace. . . an enormous rat, steadily glaring at him.” When he pretends to throw something at the rodent, it amazes him by refusing to budge and, instead, displays “its great white teeth angrily. . . its cruel eyes” shining “in the lamplight with an added vindictiveness.” Unfortunately, when Malcolm rushes at the animal with a poker, “to kill it,” the rat retreats “up the rope of the alarm bell,” escaping, and setting off a “noisy scampering of the rats in the wainscot.”

Were the rat of a normal size, it wouldn’t be nearly as intimidating as the “enormous one,” and Stoker’s anthropomorphic description of the rodent’s gaze as implying that the animal feels various emotions--all negative, of course--prepares readers for the narrator’s suggestion, later on, that the huge rat may, in fact, be associated with--or may even be--the judge himself.

Malcolm goes to sleep just before dawn and is dead to the world until Mrs. Dempster’s preparation of his breakfast awakens him. He goes for a walk, to study his books in a pleasant wood, stopping by the inn to say hello to Mrs. Witham on his way back to the judge’s house. When he tells her of the enormous rat, she refers to it as the devil, which Malcolm finds so amusing that he laughs, causing the elderly woman herself to chuckle as well.

Mrs. Witham’s half-serious, half-joking identification of the huge rat with the devil suggests another possible true identity for the rodent, besides that of the late judge, even though both Malcolm and she laugh at the absurdity of her suggestion. Readers may chuckle, too, or even roll their eyes; still, through Mrs. Witham’s statement, Stoker has suggested the possibility of a much greater source of evil, Satan himself, thereby elevating the suspense of the tale with but a few exchanges of dialogue between the main character and one of his new acquaintances, the inn’s landlady.

That evening, the rats’ commotion and noise is greater than it had been the previous evening. As on the previous night, the rats later become suddenly silent and Malcolm is disturbed to see the “enormous rat” staring at him again, “with baleful eyes,” from the “old high-backed carved oak chair beside the fireplace.” This time, the student throws a textbook at the rodent, but it doesn’t flee until he runs at it with the poker, at which point it scampers, again, “up the rope of the alarm bell,” its escape seeming to occasion “the renewal of the noise made by the general rat community.”

In most horror stories, the bizarre events of the action take place at night or, at least, in the dark, and Stoker’s haunted house story is no exception. Again, the reference to the rats allows a natural explanation for seemingly supernatural events. Notice, too, Stoker’s repetitions of similar events during successive days and nights. Most horror stories, past and present, offer some variation or other upon this strategy, repeating, with minor variations, one or more uncanny or fantastic incidents, or a series of such incidents, to heighten suspense while, at the same time, creating verisimilitude (or seeking to do so) by rendering the extraordinary ordinary--or at least familiar--through the recurrence of these incidents.

Thinking that he will trap the rat, Malcolm arranges his equipment so that it will disclose the spot through which the rodent disappears and then returns, again, to his studies:

Accordingly he lit another lamp and placed it so that it would shine well into the right-hand corner of the wall by the fireplace. Then he got all the books he had with him, and placed them handy to throw at the vermin. Finally he lifted the rope of the alarm bell and placed the end of it on the table, fixing the extreme end under the lamp. As he handled it he could not help noticing how pliable it was, especially for so strong a rope, and one not in use. “You could hang a man with it,” he thought to himself. When his preparations were made he looked around and said complacently:

“There now, my friend, I think we shall learn something of you this time!”
As I point out in other of my posts, the turning point of many horror stories occurs as the protagonist learns the origin or the nature of the threat that he faces. Through Malcolm’s talking to himself, Stoker suggests the nature of the turning point in this story and suggests, also, that it will hinge upon discovery or revelation.

When the sound of the rats again abruptly ends, Malcolm looks up to see the huge rat again, throws several books at it, and finally drives it off. The rodent retreats, Malcolm sees, through a hole in one of the paintings on the wall. Examining which books he threw at the rat to identify which tome caused it to withdraw, he sees that it was none of his mathematical treatises, but a holy book:

He picked up the books one by one, commenting on them as he lifted them. “Conic Sections he does not mind, nor Cycloidal Oscillations, nor the Principia, nor Quaternions, nor Thermodynamics. Now for the book that fetched him!” Malcolmson took it up and looked at it. As he did he started, and a sudden pallor overspread his face. He looked around uneasily and shivered slightly, as he murmured to himself:

“The Bible my mother gave me! What an odd coincidence.”
Indirectly, by pointing out through his narrator, that it is the Bible, and not human beings’ own rational faculties, as symbolized by the mathematics textbooks in the protagonists’ position, that drives the gigantic rat from the room, Stoker indirectly endorses the mystic’s point of view over that of the common-sense realist. Mathematics had not the power to banish the apparently supernatural villain, but the Bible, which contains a decidedly supernatural and, from a naturalistic standpoint, fantastic, worldview, exorcises the demon, so to speak. Although there is a bit of humor in Stoker’s description of the books, there may also be a suggestion that his readers would do well not to dismiss the otherworldly worldviews of religious and metaphysical or mystical sources of wisdom.  (At the same time, maintaining the tension between possible natural and supernatural explanations for the extraordinary incidents that take place--or appear to take place--in the story, the protagonist suggests that the Bible's frightening away the rat might be merely "an odd coincidence.")

After sleeping, Malcolm returns to his studies, paying Mrs. Witham another visit in the afternoon, where he finds her in the company of a gentleman identified to him as Dr. Thornhill, who admits to having come in answer to Mrs. Witham’s request that he see and advise the student. Malcolm is to avoid late nights and limit his tea intake. The physician also tells his patient that the rope up which the enormous rat runs is actually “the very rope which the hangman used for all of the victims of the Judge’s judicial rancor!” After Malcolm leaves, the doctor informs Mrs. Witham that he had deliberately planted the image of the hangman’s rope in his patient’s mind so that, should Malcolm suffer “some strange fright or hallucination,” he will use the rope to sound the alarm so that he may be assisted. He predicts that the student will sound the alarm this very night.

The reference to the hangman brings another element of eeriness to the book, and the doctor’s advice that Malcolm limit the amount of tea that he consumes provides another possible natural explanation for the protagonist’s apparently extraordinary experiences at the judge’s house: too much caffeine.

Back at the Judge’s house, Malcolm returns to his studies, and all is well until a storm begins to rage, causing the rope attached to the roof alarm to rise and fall and reminding the student of Dr. Thornhill’s declaration that the rope was the one that “the hangman used for victims of the Judge’s judicial rancor.”

Reminders to characters are, of course, reminders to readers as well, and such reminders maintain, if and when they do not also actually heighten, suspense by bringing to readers’ conscious awareness threads of the narrative that have been woven into the story in previous scenes. Again, the judge is characterized as irrational and as motivated not by a belief in justice but by “rancor.”

As Malcolm considers who might have been hanged on the judge’s orders, the enormous rat again descends the rope, “glaring at him steadily.” It swiftly retreats, stirring the other rats in hiding to commotion, and Malcolm is reminded that he has “not investigated the lair of the rat or looked at the pictures, as he had intended.” He lights a lamp and conducts his investigation. What he sees first startles, then frightens, him:

At the first glance [at the painting with the hole in it through which the large rat had vanished] he started back so suddenly that he almost dropped the lamp, and a deadly pallor overspread his face. His knees shook, and heavy drops of sweat came on his forehead, and he trembled like an aspen.
The reappearances of the larger-than-life rat are coupled with advancements of the story’s plot, serving as reminders to Malcolm to undertake actions that he has previously decided, but has since forgotten, to take. Earlier, the rat’s appearance reminded him to seek its avenue of escape; now, its appearance reminds him to “investigate the lair of the rat.” By coupling the rat’s multiple appearances with the protagonist’s forgotten intentions, Stoker prevents the rodent’s reappearances from becoming tedious to the reader, seeming, as they do, to serve a purpose; indeed, one begins, perhaps, to wonder whether the rat’s arrivals and departures are entirely coincidental or may be directed by unseen powers, even, perhaps, the ghost of the judge in whose house Malcolm has taken up temporary residence.

Gathering his nerve, he inspects the picture again, and sees that the painting is a portrait of the hanging judge, whose “face was strong and merciless, evil, crafty, and vindictive, with a sensual mouth, a hooked nose of ruddy colour, and shaped like the beak of a bird of prey. The rest of the face was a cadaverous colour,” and “the eyes were of peculiar brilliance and with a terribly malignant expression.” The eyes disturb Malcolm, for, in them, he sees “the very counterpart to the eyes of the great rat.” Malcolm returns his attention to the painting:

The Judge was seated in a great high-backed carved oak chair, on the right-hand side of a great stone fireplace where, in the corner, rope hung down from the ceiling, its end lying coiled on the floor.
If the eyes are the mirrors of the soul, those of the rat, as a creature that lacks a soul, must seem terrible indeed, and alien. Again, the rat is linked to the judge, for in the stare of the rat Malcolm imagines the gaze of the judge.

Understanding that the picture represents “the scene of the room” as it presently stands, Malcolm is “awestruck,” and, feeling as if someone is “behind him,” looks “over the corner of the fireplace” and sees the enormous rat “in the Judge’s arm-chair, with the rope hanging behind,” staring at the student “with the Judge’s baleful eyes, now intensified and with a fiendish glare.”

He drops the lamp, which seems to awaken him, as it were, from his trancelike state, and, as he attends to the lamp, he calms himself. After a drink of brandy, he is able to return to his studies. Another sudden silence makes him aware of the sound of “the creaking of the rope,” and he witnesses the huge rat gnawing through the rope, which, as it falls to the floor, severed, makes Malcolm aware that his ability to summon “the outer world to his assistance” has now been “cut off.”

Up to this point, Malcolm has, by choice, isolated himself from others; now, his isolation is forced, his free will in the matter giving way to determinism and the fear that such loss of control (or apparent control) often entails. Moreover, Malcolm is unable to summon assistance (and readers an be quite sure that, sooner, rather than later, the protagonist is going to require it).

Angry, Malcolm throws a book at the rat, but the rodent drops to the floor and flees. The student decides to hunt for the animal and, removing the shade from his lamp, illuminates a greater extent of the room, including its “upper part.” The light reveals a sight that terrifies the student:

In the centre of the picture was a great irregular patch of brown canvas, as fresh as when it was stretched on the frame. The background was as before, with chair and chimney-corner and rope, but the figure of the Judge had disappeared.

At this point, unless Malcolm is hallucinating, any purely natural explanation for the incidents that he has witnessed firsthand and at length is impossible. Therefore, readers must assume, the story must be regarded as supernatural, for this incident is truly marvelous. Indeed, it may turn upon so supernatural a phenomenon as metempsychosis, a sort of reincarnation, wherein a human soul is reincarnated in the form of another living organism (as in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Metzengerstein,” for example).

Liberated, as it were, from the painting, the judge now occupies the room’s “great high-backed carved oak chair” and wears his judicial robes and “a black cap,” which he dons at the stroke of midnight. Rising from his chair, the judge retrieves the severed rope, fashioning one of its ends into a noose. Cutting off Malcolm’s path to the door and his escape through it, the judge attempts to toss the noose over the student’s head, but Malcolm manages, many times, to avoid it.

As the judge relentlessly pursues him, rats swarm the portion of the rope that yet hangs from the ceiling, their numbers and weight causing the roof alarm to sound. However, the “sound was but a tiny one.” Nevertheless, it enrages the judge, and he seizes Malcolm, who is now paralyzed with dread; secures the noose about the student’s neck; lifts him onto the great “oak chair”; ties the free end of the severed rope to the portion that yet hangs from the ceiling; and then pulls away the chair upon which he had stood Malcolm.

Marvel follows upon marvel now, as the judge, absent from his portrait, appears, apparently as a ghost, in the selfsame chair that Malcolm has beheld since moving into the dining room of the judge‘s house. With each new wonder, it becomes easier and easier to accept the premise that this tale involves the supernatural, after all, the protagonists’ and Mrs. Dempster’s skepticism notwithstanding--and just in time for the ending of the tale!

Previously, the story has intimated that the rope might be that of a hangman, and readers have heard, several times, characterizations of the judge as evil and cruel. Now, these hints and foreshadowing of the true nature of the rope and of the judge come together as the judge’s ghost becomes the protagonist’s executioner.

The action of the rats on the rope sets the “:alarm bell” pealing, summoning a “crowd,” led by Dr. Thornhill. They break through the door and find, “at the end of the rope of the great alarm bell. . . the body of the student,” hanging, “and on the face of the Judge in the picture. . . a malignant smile.”

The reader is left in the dark, so to speak, as to what the “crowd” will make of the sight they witness, although it is likely that, among them, will be both believers in the supernatural and skeptics concerning its existence so that the cause of the student’s hanging, whether as the result of his suicide caused, perhaps, by an overactive imagination fueled by the isolated and macabre surroundings in which he was living, or his murder by a malicious ghost, will remain forever a mystery. In either case, the incident is likely to add to the house’s unsavory reputation, or “absurd prejudice.” This ending preserves the tension between natural and supernatural explanations, although, for the reader, natural explanations seem impossible, considering the incidents that he or she has, as it were, witnessed firsthand.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Monster as the "Mediator Between the Human and the Nonhuman"

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

In Alien Encounters, Mike Rose, writing about science fiction, offers several insightful observations that also have application to horror fiction. Indeed, Chillers and Thrillers has made some of the very same claims that Rose makes, so Rose’s own insights often complement my own. However, since he is writing about science fiction, rather than horror fiction, some of his observations about his topic do not appear to apply to horror fiction as well.

One of the typical horror plots, I’ve argued, begins by introducing a threat, usually monstrous in some way, that disrupts the characters’ everyday lives--lives that they have often come to take for granted. Rose sees a similar situation as comprising the inciting moment of many science fiction stories, in which, he says, the basic conflict pits science against nature and the human (or spiritual) against the nonhuman (the natural or the material). The result of the clash of these adversaries, he contends, is a change in the way in which human beings relate to themselves, other human beings, or nature itself:

All forms of the fantastic--the gothic, the romantic tale, and modern fantasy as well as science fiction--are concerned with the relationship between the ordinary and the extraordinary (29).
In science fiction, Rose declares, the threat to humanity’s everydayness and the security that the ordinary often provides (or appears to provide) is apt to take one of four forms: space, time, machine, or monster:

At the level of theme and motif, science fiction seems bewilderingly diverse, composed of such disparate elements as aliens, time machines, spaceships, robots, and telepaths. If we proceed to a higher level of abstraction, however, we can observe the way the concern with the human in relation to the nonhuman projects itself through four logically related categories, which I shall call space, time, machine, and monster (32).
Interestingly, in science fiction, the conflict between such adversaries sometimes ends with the adoption of the nonhuman or with an extension of the concept of the human to include the nonhuman--or, at least, the particular instance of the nonhuman that the threat represents:

Science fiction’s role as mediator between the spiritual and the material is in alignment with its role as mediator between the human and the nonhuman. Generally speaking, the spiritual may be identified as the human, the realm of meaning that is opposed to the meaningless realm of the nonhuman. An atom, a star, or a galaxy in itself means nothing; it is, in every sense of the word, insignificant. The nonhuman acquires significance only when it is brought into relationship with the human. And when this happens the human versus nonhuman opposition is inevitably subverted: the nonhuman becomes part of human experience (48).
In horror fiction, such inclusion is rarely entertained; instead, the threat is overcome; the monster is cast out, neutralized, or destroyed. A strong rift remains between the human and the nonhuman. Between them, the chasm is usually unbridgeable and eternal.

One instance, however, in which an uneasy acceptance of the extraordinary in the context of the everyday occurs in horror fiction is the acceptance of Daniel (“Oz”) Osbourne, a werewolf in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, by his girlfriend Willow Rosenberg and the other members of their clique, the so-called Scoobies: protagonist Buffy Summers, Xander Harris, Cordelia Chase, and Buffy’s mentor, Rupert Giles.

In most werewolf stories, the beast is hunted down and dispatched with a silver bullet (and, indeed, a werewolf hunter seeks to do just this in “Phases,” an episode of the series). However, as Giles observes, it seems inhuman to kill a werewolf when, except for three days each month, he is human rather than animal. The more merciful and moral course of action would seem to be the one that they take, which is locking Oz in a cage during the three nights that he transforms into a wolf.

However, in a different episode, “Beauty and the Beasts,” Oz escapes during Xander’s watch, and, in his werewolf form, is thought, at first, to have killed a person. Oz eventually leaves Sunnydale rather than to continue putting those for whom he cares at risk. Later, upon returning, after believing himself cured of his affliction, he does try to kill Tara Maclay, Willow’s girlfriend, when he learns that Willow is in an intimate relationship with her, preferring her newfound lesbian lover to him.

Ultimately, the series seems to suggest that accepting the bizarre into the realm of the ordinary is perilous and foolish. Compassion, mercy, and the desire to do the right thing can have problematic effects on the community, and harboring unnatural or supernatural outcasts could be not merely dangerous, but also fatal, indeed.

Perhaps science fiction more readily embraces the otherness of the nonhuman because the genre emerged from a tradition--science itself--that has accepted humanity’s displacement from a geocentric (and, indeed, an egocentric) world view to one in which human beings are understood as being insignificant, if not altogether irrelevant, motes, not in God’s eye, but the in the eyeless, nonhuman universe.

This willingness to accept the nonhuman was not initially the case, even in science (or science fiction). Indeed, early science fiction writers resisted the nonhuman (as some still do). The protagonist of H. G. Wells’ short story, “The Star,” hangs on to his humanity, even when the nonhuman, represented by a planet hurtling toward the Earth, threatens to destroy him, expressing a sentiment much like that of the speaker of one of Emily Dickinson’s poems, who asserts:

The brain is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.

The brain is deeper than the sea,
For, hold them, blue to blue,
The one the other will absorb,
As sponges, buckets do

The brain is just the weight of God,
For, lift them, pound for pound,
And they will differ, if they do,
As syllable from sound.
--whereas the protagonist of “The Star” argues, as Rose observes, that he is capable of understanding the very nature that would seek, as it were, to kill him, and that he would not, therefore, trade places with, even if he could do so:

At one point, Wells’s mathematician is described as gazing at the approaching planet “as one might look into the eyes of a brave enemy. ‘You may kill me,’ he said after a silence. ‘But I can hold you--all the universe for that matter--in the grip of this little brain. I would not change. Even now’ (30).

At first, even scientists themselves were reluctant to let go the anthropomorphic universe in which suns and planets were once thought gods and over which the one true God still ruled. “Galileo founded modern science,” Rose says, “but the shift from a sacramental to an alienated sense of the cosmos did not come into being until long after Galileo,” and even Copernicus himself maintained faith in the divine reality of an eternal Creator: “For Copernicus himself the solar system was a temple,” Rose reminds his readers, “and the sun was a magical sign of God” (51).

Later, however, Rose argues, science fiction accepted, if all of humanity has, as yet, not, the insignificance of humanity in the cosmic scheme of things, and, with this acceptance, they (and science fiction writers) experienced an alienation from the ground of their being. “The sense of alienation that informs science fiction is inseparable from the modern scientific view,” which followed, if it was not caused by, the scientific revolution, and this sense of alienation continues to affect humans today: “The Victorian situation of urban man disconnected from God, cut off from nature, separated from other men, is of course our own; it is in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century spiritual loneliness as a manifestation of our culture’s longing to escape the prison-house of the merely human” (53).

Paradoxically, Rose suggests, it is science fiction that enables readers to bridge, if only imaginatively, the gulf between the human and the nonhuman. When nature was sacramental, God’s presence was perceived and, indeed, felt, in his creation, but once nature was conceived of as being merely material, and not spiritual, and was understood to act according to purely physical laws, rather than in response to a divine will, an anguished sense of alienation resulted. Orphaned by the death of God, humanity grieved--and continues to grieve. However, if science, in part, at least, helped, as Edgar Allan Poe’s “Sonnet: To Science” suggests, bring about the death of God, its offspring, science fiction, might help readers to bond again, as it were, with the nonhuman and material universe.

Poe laments:

Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet's heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?
And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?
--to which Rose seems to reply:

Science fiction operates, then, not merely by sustaining the human versus the nonhuman opposition but by simultaneously and continuously subverting it, generating fables that transfigure both the idea of the nonhuman and the idea of the human. The space that the genre inhabits is not a prison, rigid and unyielding, but a flexible and dynamic field of semantic tension. It is this condition that makes a living genre possible (49).
Horror fiction, as I pointed out, takes a different tact. Instead of seeking, or, usually, even allowing, a reconciliation of the human and the nonhuman (usually, that is, the monstrous), horror fiction requires that the nonhuman, or the “other,” be vanquished, whether by exile (as Grendel is exiled, in Beowulf), neutralization (as Caliban is neutralized, in The Tempest, when he agrees to serve Prospero), or destruction (as Grendel is destroyed, in Beowulf, when he won’t accept his exile but, instead, attacks the Danes). Accepting a wolf into the fold, as it were, is too dangerous, as Buffy’s example of the Scoobies’ acceptance of Oz into their circle demonstrates (and as does their acceptance, for that matter, at one time or another, of the vampires Angel and Spike).

Rose sees monsters as symbolic representations of “self-alienation,” rather than existential alienation, a separation of the self from itself, which, he says, may or may not be associated with the split between man's consciousness of himself as distinct from his nonhuman, or material, opposite, nature, or a “violation of conceptual categories” (176-186).

When monsters arise from self-alienation, he says, they appear in “narratives of metamorphosis, stories of the transformation of man into something less than or more than human” (179). When they emerge from the continuous play between “conceptual categories,” monsters take the forms of the grotesque: “The grotesque, as Wolfgang Kayser suggests, may be understood as an aesthetic form associated with the violation of conceptual categories such as vegetable and animal, animal and human, dead and living” (186).

How does this process occur? “The grotesque,” Rose contends, “is the estranged world, the world made over according to new principles,” and, as such, it is also “the estranged world” and “implies the daemonic” (186-187). It is a world born, as it were, from “a continuing play with the categories of the familiar and the unfamiliar, the human and the nonhuman” (188), and “all mediating figures, whether machines of human origin or monsters or supermen of evolutionary or extraterrestrial origin, move readily toward the daemonic, playing roles in science fiction analogous to those of good and evil spirits of older forms of romance” (187).

When monsters arise from self-alienation, he says, they appear in “narratives of metamorphosis, stories of the transformation of man into something less than or more than human,” Rose contends, but, one might argue, in some cases--that of Buffy’s Oz, for example--that such a transformation is simultaneously “into something” that is both “less than” and “more than human,” for Oz certainly loses everything that makes him human (except, at times, at any rate, his bipedal gait), but he also gains the strength, stamina, heightened senses, and speed of a wolf who is unimpeded by moral, or even rational, decisions and choices. As werewolf-Oz, the taciturn Scooby is a beast to be reckoned with (except that, of course, he can’t be reckoned with).

In any case, following such a transformation, Rose opines, “dehumanized man, man as either monster or superman, is in principle indistinguishable from any other kind of alien” (179), and, as such, one might add, should probably be treated as such.

Rose’s book is full of comments and observations that spark one’s own imagination. For example, horror fiction’s monsters tend to disappoint once they come crawling out of their dark domains, into the light, and the reader sees, as it were, the form of the monster, for nothing can disturb or frighten as well as the shapes of things unseen except in the mind’s-eye. Theoretically, such disappointment need not occur, however, Rose suggests, in either horror fiction or in science fiction: “Since the universe is limitless, so too are the possible shapes of man,” a possibility that is associated, he thinks, with “the pervasive science-fiction concern with infinity. The vision of the genre as a whole is the conviction of infinite human plasticity” (184).

However, in practice, this ideal can never be realized. The day awaits the writer who can somehow transcend the limits of human imagination and envision a truly monstrous monster, because, alas, it is not possible to think outside one’s own frame of reference, which is the universe (or that portion of the universe about which humanity has learned the secrets of nature). The writer who pierces this limitation must, of necessity, be him- or herself an alien or a deity. Nevertheless, too often, in horror fiction, the monster is derived from the application of the same few principles, such as addition, subtraction, substitution, and the like, as I have argued in previous posts, including “Monster Mash: How To Create a Monster,“ Part 1  and Part 2 when others may exist that should be sought.

Interestingly, Rose includes transgender characters in his gallery of grotesques, listing “the androgynous Gethenians of The Left Hand of Darkness” alongside “the two-headed Mrs. Grales of A Canticle for Leibowitz” and “the monstrous children of Childhood’s End” (186). Likewise, until the American Psychiatric Association (APA) removed male and female homosexuals from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1974, same-sex lovers were considered mentally ill; before they were included with the mentally ill, they were criminals and, indeed, moral monsters. Today, transsexuals are still considered mentally ill (they suffer, it is said, from “gender dysphoria”).

Nevertheless, the public, like the psychological and psychiatric experts, seem to have, perhaps under political pressure, come to change their own minds concerning the nature of homosexuals, if not the transgender, regarding them, for the most part, as sane and moral. In other words, these individuals, who were once seen as monsters who must be cast out, are now regarded as having a place at the table with the rest of humanity. They, who were once seen as exceptional, if not nonhuman, are now regarded as unusual but human. More and more, they are accepted among the rest (that is, the majority) of humanity.

Having returned, rather indirectly, to the matter of humans’ acceptance of the nonhuman, there is also another reason, it would seem, for horror’s rejection of such otherness (or most of it). To adopt the world view that science suggests is to jettison a belief in God and, as a consequence, the basis, some would argue, of morality itself. If God is dead, such apologists would contend, there really is no objective basis for a belief in good and evil or right and wrong. Were God to be excluded from the picture, there would be, at best, a social contract between members of a society, and among societies, in which it would be agreed that this act is permissible, whereas the other is not, a contract that is arbitrary and capricious, allowing, for example, slavery in one century; suppressing the voting of minorities, including women, in another; and outlawing both in still a third.

A system of morality that is as susceptible to political change as situation ethics or moral relativism is too fragile and subjective, such critics contend. Horror fiction maintains its hold, rather fiercely, on the possibility of God’s existence and, therefore, the possibility of the existence of good and evil. Human behavior, horror fiction implies, can be right or wrong. Human conduct is not necessarily a matter of the alignment of the stars. The alternative to a moral universe has been expressed well by one of the monsters whom horror fiction would exile, neutralize, or destroy and whom American society, in fact, did put to death, serial killer Ted Bundy:

Then I learned that all moral judgments are ‘value judgments,’ that all value judgments are subjective, and that none can be proved to be either ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ I even read somewhere that the Chief Justice of the United States had written that the American Constitution expressed nothing more than collective value judgments. Believe it or not, I figured out for myself–what apparently the Chief Justice couldn’t figure out for himself–that if the rationality of one value judgment was zero, multiplying it by millions would not make it one whit more rational. Nor is there any ‘reason’ to obey the law for anyone, like myself, who has the boldness and daring–the strength of character–to throw off its shackles…I discovered that to become truly free, truly unfettered, I had to become truly uninhibited. And I quickly discovered that the greatest obstacle to my freedom, the greatest block and limitation to it, consists in the insupportable ‘value judgment’ that I was bound to respect the rights of others. I asked myself, who were these ‘others?’ Other human beings, with human rights? Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than any other animal, a pig or a sheep or a steer? Is your life more than a hog’s life to a hog? Why should I be willing to sacrifice my pleasure more for the one than for the other? Surely, you would not, in this age of scientific enlightenment, declare that God or nature has marked some pleasures as ‘moral’ or ‘good’ and others as ‘immoral’ or ‘bad’? In any case, let me assure you, my dear young lady, that there is absolutely no comparison between the pleasure that I might take in eating ham and the pleasure I anticipate in raping and murdering you. That is the honest conclusion to which my education has led me–after the most conscientious examination of my spontaneous and uninhibited self.
In Western society, the solution to the dilemma of who and what merits a place at the table of humanity and who and what, for the common good, should be ostracized, neutralized, or destroyed rests, at present, upon such notions as the need to protect the public on one hand and the need to permit individuals to engage in activities, in private, which may offend many but do no physical harm to the participants (or need not do any such harm), as long as there is mutual consent between the adults who would participate in such conduct, whether the conduct is sexual or otherwise.

Therefore, were Ted Bundy a homosexual who had had an affair with a like-minded and willing partner, and had consummated his decision to do so in private, he would have been considered human, if unusual, and would have been accommodated by society. However, even as a heterosexual (whom society accepts unreservedly), he was sentenced to death, because he had raped and killed over thirty women, one of whom was only fifteen years of age. In other words, his acts were neither consensual nor harmless.

By carving out exceptions, qualifications, and extenuating circumstances, society has worked out a scheme for accepting some sorts of otherness while rejecting other sorts. Even so, yesterday’s monsters do not fare well in many horror stories, and those that society accepts, more or less, are often still rejected by horror fiction. For example, in general, homosexual characters still do not fare well in horror stories.

Horror fiction is more traditional than science fiction. Moreover, it clings to the possibility of the existence of the supernatural, including God. Consequently, it is more concerned with, even dedicated to, the defense of the status quo, the existing order, the way things are. Threats against everydayness may be welcome as a means of shaking up the complacent and reminding them that life is short and precious, but after the monster has done so, most writers’ stories give them the heave-ho or destroy them, if they cannot be made subservient to the reigning power elite or otherwise neutralized.

Science fiction is more alienated from both the world and the self, perhaps, than horror fiction tends to be, and what the latter rejects, the former may be inclined to accept. However, Howard Hawks’ 1951 horror-science fiction movie The Thing from Another World offers scientists a warning, because it was one of their own who reached out to the extraterrestrial invader, even trying to protect it from the military representatives of his own species, only to be killed himself by the monster.

To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it may well be that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies. It may well be, too, that some things are better left alone and that vampires should never be invited into one’s home--or to one’s table.

Note: I have no animosity myself toward gays or lesbians, but, in the Western world, they are sexual “others” to the predominantly heterosexual majority in their culture and society and, as such, fit the monster mold, for some, albeit, less convincingly now, perhaps, than they did prior to 1974, when the APA declared them no longer victims of a “mental disorder.” It is for this reason that they (or the transgender) sometimes appear as threats to the status quo, as do “the androgynous Gethenians of The Left Hand of Darkness.”

Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Todorov:

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

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

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

My Cup of Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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