Sunday, January 31, 2010

Quick Tip: For A Story To Be Suspenseful, It Is Necessary For Its Protagonist To Suffer

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

In a comedy, the main character ends up better off at the end of the story than he or she was at its beginning. A tragedy is just the opposite: the protagonist ends up better off at the conclusion of the narrative than he or she was at its start. The main character in a comedy may not end up well off or happy. He or she may be only relatively better off or happier than he or she was at the story’s beginning. A disease, believed to be fatal, might, instead of killing the protagonist, merely cripple, or disable, him or her. Likewise, although the main character in a tragedy will end up worse off or more miserable at the end of the tale than he or she was initially, he or she may actually go from bad, rather than good, to worse off.

Gustav Freytag, as I pointed out in a previous post, breaks dramas into five acts, the second one of which, which constitutes the rising action, he says, complicates the story’s initial, basic conflict, usually by tossing one obstacle after another, each more serious and more difficult to overcome than the previous, into the protagonist’s path or attempt to realize his or her goal. Dean Koontz says much the same thing when he advises writers to make it as hard on the main character as possible. Likewise, Joss Whedon told Sarah Michelle Gellar that, to make Buffy the Vampire Slayer as compelling a series as possible, it was necessary to make the character she played suffer as much as possible. Readers cheer on main characters who suffer to succeed, and, as soon as a protagonist overcomes one problem, another, worse one needs to arise, just as, when Hercules sought to kill the Hydra, cutting off one of its nine heads, two new heads appeared from the resulting wound, making his task always twice as difficult as it originally had been.

In other words, during the beginning of the story, during its rising action, a writer must make everything worse and worse for his or her protagonist. Koontz demonstrates this technique (as do most popular novelists) in all of his books. In Relentless, a sociopath who also happens to be a critic, attacks the protagonist (a popular novelist!) and his family. Warned that the antagonist is a relentless killer, the writer packs a few bags, planning to take his wife and son with him and flee their home. Rather stupidly leaving their son unattended in the back seat of their getaway car, the parents, after hearing a cellular telephone left in a closet by their assailant ring, witness their clock radios reset themselves and begin counting down toward explosions. They flee back to the car, only to find their son missing. A bad situation (looming explosions) has gotten even worse (their son is missing as the bombs are about to detonate).

By taking a tip from Koontz, Whedon, and other popular storytellers in plotting the action of your story so that one problem, as soon as it is resolved, is overtaken by a more difficult one in which the stakes (one’s home is about to be destroyed) are increased (one’s son is missing and may be killed), you, too, can generate and maintain suspense while complicating your story’s basic conflict.

Monday, January 18, 2010

To Be Is To Be Perceived (And To Be Perceived Is To Be)

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

In The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defines “edible” as meaning “good to eat and wholesome to digest, as a worm to a toad, a toad to a snake, a snake to a pig, a pig to a man, and a man to a worm.”

His humor’s not for everyone, but it does, in this case, at least, suggest something important to writers, whether of horror fiction or otherwise: We are either who we would have ourselves be or what others would have us be. To a hungry lion, we are perhaps viewed as food. However, were we armed with a spear (or, better yet, a rifle), the king of the beasts himself might become our prey. To Christians (in the old days, at least) and to Moslems (even today, in some cases) alike, those who were not of the faith were pagans or infidels, although, from their viewpoint, the pagans and infidels, not the Christians and the Moslems exercised the one and only true faith. To Republicans, Democrats are the opposition; to Democrats, it’s the other way around. We either define ourselves or we are defined by another.

We may also regard ourselves one way while another regards us in a completely different manner. A man may consider himself to be a suitor, whereas, from the perspective of the object of his affections, he may be considered a stalker. The use, in the last sentence, of “object,” in describing the woman whom the man (depending upon one’s perspective) either woos or stalks, was intentional, intended as a segue to the concept that Jewish theologian Martin Buber introduces in I and Thou. In this profound book, Buber points out that we can consider either ourselves or others to be either a person (an “I”) or a thing (an “it”). We will then treat ourselves or others accordingly. Employers, for example, often think of employees as “human resources,” rather than as men and women with attitudes, beliefs, dreams, emotions, ideas, imaginations, morals, motivations, needs, principles, values, and wisdom of their own--and treat them as such. (Employees seldom forget that they are, in fact, as human--or more so--than their bosses, whom they may regard as tyrants--and treat them as such.) As the Bible says, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.”

A philosophical adage has it that “to be is to be perceived,” but it seems equally valid to say that “to be perceived is to be,” for we assign both ourselves and others roles to play, thereby perceiving ourselves and others to “be” this or that or, perhaps, to “fit” a particular type of work, as being “suited to” or “suitable for” a certain activity. Writers should never forget that it is just as true, perhaps, that we are perceived to be certain things as it is true that we exist because we are recognized or understood.

We assign meaning, just as we assign value. In doing so, we construct reality. Both for ourselves and others. We do this every day, whether we are writers or not, but writers also do it every time they write a story. To Beowulf, Grendel is the monstrous troll who is killing Danish warriors and terrorizing the people of their village and mead hall. To his mother, Grendel is a beloved son whose death at the hands of the murderous Beowulf must be avenged. It is clear that how characters see one another can be, and often is, the basis of narrative and dramatic conflict.

Perceptions can also be the bases of ironic reversals. Indeed, such a reversal is the very foundation of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He imagined a young woman entering a dark alley, where she was attacked by a monster. However, instead of the monster killing (and possibly devouring) her, it was she who emerged victorious from their battle. The monster, a vampire, no doubt, saw the teen as prey (and, possibly, a meal), as would someone watching such a scene play out in a movie or a television episode (Buffy was a movie before it was a TV series.) Likewise, the typical teen would regard the vampire as a threat, as a predator. Both would act accordingly, the vampire actively, attacking, killing and consuming; the girl, passively, being attacked, killed, and consumed. (Acting upon the instinct for self-preservation, she might put up some resistance, of course, but it would be futile.) In Whedon’s ironic version of the scene, though, the vampire’s perception of himself as the predator and of Buffy as the prey worked against him, for it was Buffy who, as it turned out, was actually the actual slayer in their (brief) encounter.

Playing with roles can have other interesting effects, too. A boy or a girl, transitioning to adulthood, can leave childhood behind, seemingly in a moment, either because of an external event or because of an internal incident. For example, if one encounters child abuse, perhaps seeing a father bending back the fingers of his son’s hand, by way of “punishment,” will the witness become involved? Intervene? Pretend nothing unusual is happening and ignore the abuse? Whatever he or she does, the adolescent characterizes him- or herself, perhaps in several ways. Will a teen participate in the bullying, intimidation, and humiliation of a classmate simply because his or her “friends” are doing so, speak out against the harassment, stop the abuse and find new friends (perhaps starting with the bullied person), or ignore the situation altogether? Again, whatever he or she does, the teen characterizes him- or herself. The response shows maturity and independence (and compassion) or the opposites. Often, we are more revealed by what we say or do (or do not say or do) than others to whom we say or do whatever it is we say or do. (Yes, that is a sentence, of sorts.)

Dynamic characters (those who change by the end of the story) necessarily reverse the roles they played, as it were, at the beginning of their narratives. The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy Gale is disappointed in her home, dependent, and complaining at the beginning of the movie, but, at the end, as a result of the experiences she’s had in Oz, she is appreciative of her home, independent, and glad to be surrounded by the family and friends whom she’d taken for granted before. Tested, tired, and resigned to her fate at the end of the series’ seventh year, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is no longer the unproven, perky, rebellious teen she was at the start of the show. Dynamic characters end up as the opposites of themselves. Arguably, even for a vampire, Buffy would be hard to mistake as a victim at the end of the series, just as it would be difficult for the Wicked Witch of the west to cowl Dorothy after all she’d been through in the wonderful land of Oz.

As far as others know (and can know), each of us is what we say, what we do, and the various roles that we play. For good or for ill, because we can think differently than we speak or act, we are able to deceive others, just as they are able to deceive us. We can also be hypocrites, acting at odds with what we say we believe or endorse. The possibilities of deceit and hypocrisy are important to writers, because they allow subterfuge, betrayals, treachery, treason, and the other violations of trust upon which intrigue, suspense, irony, and plots are built.

Speech (dialogue), behavior (action), and role playing are the bases, along with nonverbal communication cues such as facial expressions and gestures, of characterization and its exhibition to readers and audiences. It is, therefore, a good habit for a writer, in studying people (as models for fictional characters) to not only observe what and how people say and do things but, equally importantly, to imagine the various ways in which the same things might be said or done, both by the present and by other people, and both in their presently adopted or assigned roles and in other possible ones. Who might have imagined that a man, through technology, could become a mother of sorts? Mary Shelley did, in the fictional person of Victor Von Frankenstein, and, if Joss Whedon hadn’t imagine a reversal of roles between the teenage girl and her supernatural attacker, Buffy the Vampire Slayer never would have been born.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Learning from the Masters: Dean Koontz’s Tips for Plotting the Best-Seller

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

In 1981, when Writer’s Digest Books published his How to Write Best-Selling Fiction, Dean Koontz had 25,000,000 copies of his books in print and had earned several million dollars as a writer. Today, he has sixteen times that number of copies in print, or a whopping 400,000,000
--a copy for every man, woman, and child in the United States, with some left over. It’s safe to assume that his fortune has enjoyed a corresponding increase. Koontz is nothing if not (a) prolific and (2) commercially successful. It should go without saying that, when he counsels aspiring writers as to what and how they should write for publication, others should pay attention.

Among other topics (or tips) that he supplies in How to Write Best-Selling Fiction, prolific, best-selling author Dean Koontz insists upon the importance of the narrative hook (an opening to the story that captivates readers and makes them want to read further) and plot. He supplies numerous examples of the former and a formula for the latter (although he prefers to call the formula a “pattern”).

His example of the narrative hook is the beginning of his own novel The Voice in the Night, in which the antagonist asks the protagonist (both of whom are adolescents), “You ever killed anything?”
This question, asked of Colin by Roy, leads the boys to discuss the killing of “bugs” (Roy admits he likes the way bugs “squish” when he kills them and enjoys watching praying mantises “try to walk” after he has ripped “the legs off” them. Finally, Roy asks, “Ever kill anything bigger than bugs?” and admits that he has done so, “lots of times,” which prompts Colin to ask, “What’d you kill?” (67-68) One must admit that this opening is captivating!

Koontz defines the “classic plot” for fiction of all types as being comprised of “four steps”:

    1. The author introduces a hero (or heroine) who has just been or is about to be
      plunged into terrible trouble.
    2. The hero attempts to solve his problem but only slips into deeper trouble.
    3. As the hero works to climb out of the hole he’s in, complications arise, each more terrible than the one before, until it seems that his situation could not be blacker or more hopeless than it is--and then one final, unthinkable complication makes matters worse. In most cases, these complications arise from mistakes or misjudgments the hero makes while struggling to solve his problems. Mistakes and misjudgments which result from the interaction of the faults and virtues that make him a unique
    4. At last, deeply affected and changed by his intolerable circumstances, the hero learns something about himself or about the human condition in general, a Truth about which he was ignorant, and, having learned this lesson, he understands what he must do to get out of the dangerous situation in which he has wound up. He takes the necessary action and succeeds or fails, though he succeeds more often than not, for readers tend to greatly prefer fiction that has an uplifting conclusion (74-75).
Coming from one of the world’s most prolific and best-selling authors, these tips are ignored only at one’s own peril, especially since, according to Koontz virtually every successful writer, from Robert Ludlum to Ernest Hemingway, himself and Stephen King included, employs them (75).

Koontz also identifies the five goals he has in mind for “the first scene,” or opening, of “every novel” he writes:

    1. I wanted to grip the reader immediately.
    2. I wanted to introduce the lead character.
    3. I wanted to plunge the lead character into terrible trouble.
    4. I wanted to let the reader know that this was going to be a fast-paced story with
      lots of suspense. . . .
    5. I wanted to create a strong sense of reality. . . .
Koontz also recommends that aspiring writers try to break into the market with a novel, as opposed to short stories; find an agent to represent him or her; write for a mainstream, rather than a genre market; include lots of action in the story; and disbelieve all the rumors about publishers who are no longer seeking quality writing from first-time writers or who refuse to consider anything sent to them over the transom. Of course, How to Write Best-Selling Fiction is almost 30 years old, and a good many things are apt to have changed since those days, but one thing seems to remain clear: if one doesn’t write at least a synopsis and the first three chapters of a novel, one will have nothing to sell, regardless of the vagaries of the marketplace and the economy.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Quick Tip: Setting as Character

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Our surroundings, to a large extent, reflect who we are. After all, when one has reached the point that he or she can choose d├ęcor and furnishings that he or she prefers rather than can afford, a homeowner is apt to select items that he or she likes. For example, according to an article in USA Today, writer “Dean Koontz’s home office is filled with things he treasures.”

What might an author who has written in such genres as horror, science fiction, and action-adventure thrillers “treasure”? Koontz is reported to appreciate and enjoy not only “family photos,” but also “Japanese scroll paintings, a collection of art-deco Bakelite radios,” and, of course, “a dog bed in the corner for his [latest] golden retriever.” His “24,000-square foot” residence, which was “inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, is “notched into a hillside” overlooking Newport Beach, California, where it exudes a “Zen-like atmosphere,” despite Koontz’s own Roman Catholic faith.

According to the USA Today article, Koontz’s home “includes numerous. . . rooms of vast proportions including a 20-seat movie theater; a wine cellar that can hold 2,000 bottles; an elevator; a state-of-the-art gym; two pools; [and] a custom-designed library.” Oh, yes, it also has three bedrooms.

Koontz admits that his house is a “horrible indulgence,” one which derives, he believes, from the poverty and deprivation of his childhood, which resulted from “his cruel, ne’er-do-well alcoholic father, who physically and emotionally abused Koontz and his mother.”

Beneath the immaculate beauty and serenity of Koontz’s dream house--foundational to it, one might say--is the ugliness and brutality of his youth. However, Koontz has made much of the wealth that has financed his mansion by reprising the role of “his cruel, ne’er-do-well alcoholic father” in the guise of the many villainous psychopaths and sociopaths who serve as his novels’ antagonists. It may not be a house which is built upon blood money, but it is a residence--and a very comfortable one, at that--which is built upon Koontz’s own childhood trauma and suffering.

One’s home may or may not be a castle or even a mansion, but even the “shack” in which Koontz says he grew up (“a shabby four-room house,” USA Today tells us, which “did not have a bathroom until he was 12”) may suggest a good deal about the person who lives there. Just as the house that Koontz built as an adult exhibits his success, both as a writer and as a man, so does the “shack” in which he lived as a boy suggest the squalor and misery of his life, then, as the child of the “cruel, ne’er-do-well alcoholic father, who physically and emotionally abused Koontz and his mother.”

It also suggests the environmental forces which, along with one’s genetic inheritance, helps to shape and mold the child, who, as William Wordsworth tells us, “is the father of the man.” In Koontz’s case, his deplorable childhood catapulted him to fame and fortune, rather than to infamy and poverty and to love, rather than hatred, for his fellow man (and, of course, golden retrievers). Koontz’s success is a testament to the greatness of his heart.

Among Ed Gein's "treasures"

Such is not always the case, of course. Ed Gein, the basis for such characters as Psycho’s Norman Bates, Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface, and The Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill, is a case in point. Gein’s mother was a stern, disapproving religious fanatic who could have been (but was not) the model that Stephen King used for Carrie White’s mother. While she was yet alive, to physically and emotionally abuse her son, the farmhouse in which Ed lived, with her and (until their deaths), his father (who was, like Koontz’s father, a “cruel, ne’er-do-well alcoholic father, who physically and emotionally abused” Gein “and his mother”) was fairly neat and orderly. However, Gein’s father died, and then Gein, it is believed, murdered his elder brother, leaving him alone with his mother in the remote farmhouse near Plainfield, Wisconsin, where whatever was festering inside Gein developed into a full-blown psychosis characterized by schizophrenia.

Following the death of Gein’s mother, the farmhouse became a horrific parody of its former self, with Gein decorating the walls with masks cut from the faces of the dead bodies he exhumed. He used human skulls for soup bowls. He upholstered chairs with human skin. He adorned the posts of his bed with his victims’ skulls. There were other horrors, too: noses, pieces of human bone, human heads, salted labia, refrigerated organs, lips on a string.

A grave robber, Gein, who was also both a transvestite and an aspiring transsexual, dressed in a vest that sported a female cadaver’s breasts, leggings of flesh, and a mask that had once been the face of one of the 40 dead women he’d exhumed from local cemeteries between 1947 and 1952.

The “house of horrors,” as Gein’s residence became known, was not the only site on the farm that displayed the horrors of its resident’s madness. The shed out back contained a decapitated female corpse that, split down the abdomen, from throat to pubes, was “dressed out” like a “deer, as John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker observe in their 1988 study, Obsession: The FBI's Legendary Profiler Probes the Psyches of Killers, Rapists, and Stalkers and Their Victims and Tells How to Fight Back (367–368).

One of the differences between Koontz and Gein was certainly their mothers. According to Koontz, his mother sought to protect him from his father, often taking the brunt of his physical abuse to protect her son from her husband’s drunken violence, and she showed her son the love that his father denied him. An uncle was also a father figure in Koontz’s life, providing an example, Koontz confesses, of how a man should act.

Gein’s mother was not protective or loving. Instead, she herself was cruel and abusive, and there was no man in Gein’s life from whom he could learn the lessons in manhood that Koontz learned from his uncle. Sadly, the community didn’t pay Gein much mind, except when his neighbors had use for a handyman or Gein was purchasing supplies from one of their stores. Another difference between Koontz and Gein, of course, lies in the temperaments and characters of the men, Koontz and Gein, themselves--in their genetics, yes, but, also, it seems, in their souls.

Ed Gein's "House of Horrors"
This difference, perhaps the critical one, is mysterious and, it may be, inexplicable. Nevertheless, such mysteries themselves can inspire tales of terror, as Koontz points out in How to Write Best-Selling Fiction (1981). Explaining to readers how his ideas for stories are sometimes teased out by his writing a series of narrative hooks (“gripping opening” paragraphs or sentences), Koontz cites the following as the one that inspired him to write A Voice in the Night:

“You ever killed anything?” Roy asked.

He let his imagination play with the sentence, and, Koontz says, “for reasons I can’t explain, I decided that Roy was a boy of about fourteen,” and, before long, he’d roughed out a two-page outline of his novel, after which, he says, “within minutes I knew I was writing a novel about the frightening duality of human nature, about the capacity for good and the capacity for evil, both of which exist in every man and woman” (66-68). His was a familiar storyline, for it was one he’d seen played out before him by his virtuous mother and sadistic father every day of his childhood.

Even when a home is not a house, but a hotel, for instance, as the Overlook Hotel becomes for Jack Torrance and his family, wife Wendy and son Danny. Like Koontz’s father and many of his novels’ own antagonists (and like Gein’s father), Torrance is also a sadistic alcoholic failure. In fact, it is violent temper that has cost him his previous position as a teacher at a preparatory school and the reason that he must accept the job of becoming the Overlook Hotel’s winter caretaker that is offered to him at the outset of the novel. The fact that his behavior has resulted in his family’s displacement from their home and their relocation to a hotel seems to symbolize the spiritual homelessness to which Torrance has subjected not only himself but his wife and child as well and the tenuousness of their lives, both as individuals and as a family. Of course, things deteriorate even more, going from bad to worse in short order, as, no doubt, King’s own childhood did when his father abandoned him, his older brother, and his mother to poverty and hardship when King was two years old.

In Hearths of Darkness: The Family in the American Horror Film, Tony Williams argues that The Exorcist’s Regan MacNeil “misses her absent father” and “resents” her mother’s “involvement with. . . Burke Dennings,” whose “foul-mouthed, sexually explicit nature influences her” (107). The family’s Georgetown townhouse suggests that Regan’s mother, Chris, an actress, seeks the good life, as it is defined by the materialistic, rather predatory society in which she lives, even at the expense of her daughter’s welfare and happiness, making Regan ripe pickings for the devil who will soon possess her, causing the preadolescent girl to act out some of the “sexually explicit” behavior about which Dennings speaks. In this case, the affluent, well-appointed townhouse of the up-and-coming actress contrasts sharply with the cost of such affluence which is born by the homeowner’s daughter.

Likewise, “Flowers in the Attic depicts family misfortunes following [the] father’s death and their arrival at Foxworth Hall, the domain of their maternal grandparents,” Williams observes: “Speaking of Foxworth Hall as ‘grandfather’s house,’ she [Cathy Dollanganger] recounts the domain’s effect on her, ‘I always remember even my first impression was one of fear and wonder. . . lost childhood, innocence shattered and all our dreams destroyed by what we would find,’” and her older brother Corey “immediately recognizes” the house “as a domain of witches and monsters.” The children are right, for they are soon imprisoned in the attic, where their only source of light is “sunshine through a barred window” (264-265).

Marion Crane, of Psycho, wants the domestic bliss of simple everydayness, as represented, in her dreams, by her own “house with my mother’s picture on the wall and my sister helping me to broil a big steak for the three of us”; instead, she gets Norman Bates, dressed up like his dead mother, dead animals stuffed and mounted on the wall of the Bates Motel office, and a knife in her shower. The harsh reality of her life (lived on the lam after absconding with her employer’s money to finance a life with her married boyfriend) is far removed from the one of her dreams, a point which is hard to miss, with her blood swirling down the drain in her shabby room at the dilapidated Bates Motel.

The absence of the father or the presence of a cruel and abusive father are only some of the themes that may result from childhood, and, as the example of Ed Gein (and Carrie White) indicate, the mother can be as culpable as the father in abusing his or her parental responsibilities. Whatever the theme, however, setting has, in the form of residences, often mirrored, and, indeed, has sometimes symbolized, the state of residents’ minds. It has done so since Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” (and before), and it is likely to be a handy convention for implying the same sort of abusive pasts, madness, and mayhem that continues to produce unsettling, even horrifying, effects in the present.

Your own character, whether he or she is the story’s protagonist or antagonist, may not live in the “shack” in which Koontz grew up or the “house of horrors” that Gein’s residence became, but it should be distinctive and, more importantly, it should mirror, or even symbolize, his or her past or present mental state and, perhaps, suggest the forces that helped, for better or for worse, shape the man or woman he or she is today. So, next time you’re considering your story’s setting, ask yourself where your characters live and what their houses look like, inside and out. Make sure that setting reflects character, the way it often does in everyday life.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Creating and Maintaining Suspense

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

After summarizing the plot of The Song of Roland, the editors of The Bedford Anthology of World Literature suggest that “the poet, apparently uninterested in creating suspense, repeatedly reminds the listener of the plot of the story as the action unfolds” (Book 2: The Middle Period, 100 C. E.-1450).

Truer words were never spoken. For writers who are concerned with creating (and maintaining) suspense, The Song of Roland offers an example as to how not to do so and, curiously enough, also of how to do so, which is why it is the subject of this article, even though the poem is not of the horror genre per se.

By outlining the entire plot, a writer can be sure to stay on track and avoid holes in the plot as he or she narrates the story’s action. Summarizing all of the story’s plot also suggests opportune moments for foreshadowing or the planting of false clues, or red herrings. However, in actually writing the story, the author should take care not to include details that, should the reader be aware of them too soon, would destroy the tale’s suspense. The withheld information must be supplied at some point, of course (probably near the end of the story), but at a later time, when its revelation will not ruin the suspense. Some information may also be supplied little by little, or piecemeal, at appropriate times, and, occasionally, with red herrings and plot twists tossed in to keep the reader guessing.

The Song of Roland might be summarized in the following manner. In the summary, the text in blue indicates information that kills suspense. Again, in the initial plotting of the story, such information should be included in the summary or outline of the plot; however, in actually writing the story, the information should be revealed only little by little or withheld entirely until the end of the narrative.

Charlemagne has been in Spain for seven years and, with the help of his nephew Roland, a knight commander, he has vanquished much of the country; only Saragossa, held by the Saracen king Marsilion, remains undefeated.

Knowing that he is unable to defeat Charlemagne, Marsilion asks the counsel of his nobles. (At the very outset of this meeting, the poet warns the audience, the council is problematic.) Blancandrin recommends that Marsilion present Charlemagne with gifts and treasure, vow to become his ally, and promise to come to France, during Michaelmas, to convert to Christianity, if Charlemagne will but return to France and leave Spain in peace. As a pledge of his good faith, Marsilion will give Charlemagne ten of his own men as hostages to kill if Marsilion betrays his word. Once Charlemagne has returned to France, however, Marsilion will renege on his promises, remaining in Spain, unconverted and at enmity against the French ruler, even though Charlemagne will then kill the Saracen hostages. Agreeing to Blancandrin’s scheme, Marsilion sends his ten worst criminals to deliver his proposal for peace to Charlemagne at Cordres.

Charlemagne assembles his nobles, asking their counsel concerning Marsilion’s proposal. Roland advises the king to reject it, reminding Charlemagne that Marsilion made a similar proposal earlier, and when Charlemagne sent envoys to discuss the enemy’s proposal, Marsilion killed them. Charlemagne should continue to prosecute the war and avenge his slain envoys, Roland argues. However, Ganelon, Roland’s stepfather, urges Charlemagne to accept Marsilion’s plan for peace, saying that enough Franks have died already in the war to extend it unnecessarily. Charlemagne asks his nobles to nominate a man to bear his reply to Marsilion, and Roland names Ganelon. The other nobles second the nomination, but Ganelon, supposing that Roland seeks to get rid of him, vows vengeance, going so far as to tell his stepson that, during his visit with Marsilion, he will do whatever he can to settle his score with Roland.

On their way to Saragossa, Ganelon and Blancandrin agree to betray Roland so that he is killed. Ganelon delivers Charlemagne’s message to Marsilion: the Saracen king must convert to Christianity and surrender half of Spain in fief. If he refuses to do so, Marsilion will be taken by force to France, in chains, and be put to death in shame. Charlemagne’s reply enrages Marsilion to the point that he seeks to slay the messenger, but he is held back by his men and, instead, retires to an orchard to take counsel among his nobles. Blancandrin tells Marsilion that Ganelon has sworn his loyalty to the Saracens’ cause, and, upon Marsilion’s orders, Ganelon joins the enemy in plotting treason against Charlemagne.

They decide that Marsilion will agree to send gifts, treasure, and twenty hostages to Charlemagne, who will then return to France, leaving Roland and another trusty knight, Oliver, to guard the rear. Then, Marsilion can attack the rear, killing Roland and leaving the knight’s grief-stricken uncle, Charlemagne, so dismayed that he will be incapable of retaliating.

Charlemagne has two disturbing dreams, or visions, one suggesting Ganelon’s betrayal, the other of the loss of his right arm to attacking animals. (Earlier, Roland has been called Charlemagne’s “right arm.”)

The next morning, Charlemagne asks his nobles to choose the commander of the rear guard (which is needed to prevent Marsilion from attacking Charlemagne as Charlemagne marches through narrow mountain passes), and, according to the plot that he has worked out with Marsilion and Blancandrin, Ganelon volunteers Roland. Although Charlemagne distrusts Ganelon, he accepts the recommendation, naming Roland the commander of the rear guard, with Oliver and Archbishop Turpin to assist him. There are only 20,000 men in Roland’s command (the same number as
Marsilion commands), and Charlemagne offers to leave Roland with half the entire army, but Roland declines, insisting that he needs no additional troops. As Charlemagne rides toward France, Marsilion, his own force having grown to 400,000 (or 20 times the size of Roland’s army), secretly gathers in a forest atop a mountain, awaiting the chance to attack Roland’s men.

Charlemagne now understands the meaning of one of the visions that, he believes, angels brought to him while he slept: Ganelon will bring about Roland’s destruction.

As Marsilion’s army advances upon Roland’s forces, they blow their trumpets, and, alerted of Marsilion’s presence, Oliver accuses Ganelon of treason, but Roland silences him, refusing to hear anyone speak ill of his stepfather. Oliver recommends that Roland blow his own horn, thereby signaling to Charlemagne his need for reinforcements so that Charlemagne may return and rout the enemy, but Roland, concerned about his honor, refuses to do so, saying that he will attack Marsilion as the Saracen king approaches. Twice more, Oliver makes the same suggestion, and twice more Roland rejects it.

Marsilion’s nephew, Aelroth, leads the enemy, taunting Roland by implying that Charlemagne is a coward who has abandoned his rear guard to the enemy so that he can save himself. Outraged, Roland kills Aelroth. During the battle, an eclipse seems to portend Roland’s death. Roland now agrees with Oliver that Ganelon has betrayed
both Charlemagne and them, for which, he tells Oliver, Charlemagne will certainly avenge them. Roland’s and Oliver’s roles are reversed again when Roland three times expresses his desire to blow his horn to summon Charlemagne’s help and Oliver argues against this course of action, insisting that Roland must conduct himself with the sound judgment and restraint that befits an honorable servant to the king. It’s too late now to summon Charlemagne, although, Oliver says, Roland should have done so when Oliver had first suggested that he do so, as Roland would have saved lives had he done so then.

The Archbishop advises the knights not to quarrel and recommends that Roland blow his horn to summon Charlemagne--not to help them against Marsilion, but to avenge their deaths at the hands of the Saracen king. Roland does so, bursting a blood vessel in his temple, in the process, and Charlemagne hears it. Riding with
Charlemagne, Ganelon insists that the horn does not mean that Roland is under attack and is seeking aid; Roland, Ganelon says, blows the horn merely out of vanity, the same way he does when he is hunting rabbits, simply as a way of boasting. However, another of Charlemagne’s nobles, Naimon, is just as adamant that Roland is blowing his horn to signify that he is under attack and to summon Charlemagne; Naimon also insists that Ganelon has already betrayed Roland once and now seeks to do so again by persuading Charlemagne not to turn back and come to Roland’s aid.

Roland laments the deaths he has caused by failing to summon Charlemagne earlier. While he is walking the battlefield in grief, Marsilion attacks, killing several more of Roland’s men, and Roland responds by cutting off Marsilion’s right hand and beheading the enemy king’s son, Jurfalen. So fiercely do the Franks defend against the Saracen attackers that 100,000 (one fourth) of Marsilion’s men abandon the battlefield in headlong retreat. However, when the remainder of the 400,000 enemy see that Roland’s force numbers only 20,000, they are heartened and press their attack. Oliver is dealt a fatal blow, although he survives for a while.

Again, Roland laments the deaths of the men he might have saved had he summoned Charlemagne when Oliver had suggested it, Oliver, blinded by his own blood, but hearing Roland approaching, strikes Roland’s helmet. However, he fails to injure Roland, and Oliver dies soon thereafter. Roland again blows his horn, but so feebly that, hearing it, Charlemagne assumes that Roland must be near death. He orders his men to blow their trumpets in response, and the Saracens, hearing the trumpeting of 60,000 horns, panic, realizing that Charlemagne has returned.

Roland climbs a hill, where, weak from blood loss, he faints. A Saracen, having been pretending to be dead, sees Roland fall and seizes the opportunity to kill him, but, as he draws Roland’s sword, Roland awakens, killing the enemy with his horn, which he
bashes into his attacker’s skull. He is outraged that a mere warrior would have sought to kill a man of his own rank. Having gone blind, Roland seeks to destroy his sword by shattering the blade against a rock so that it cannot fall into enemy hands. Although he repeatedly strikes the boulder, the sword won’t break, because it is of divine origin: an angel gave it to Charlemagne to give to a captain, and Charlemagne presented the sword to Roland. With the weapon, Roland has conquered many lands for Charlemagne (which suggests that God is on Charlemagne’s side, since an angel presented the blade to Charlemagne).

Feeling that death is near, Roland stretches out upon the hill and turns his head toward the enemy. Confessing his sins and asking forgiveness for them, he dies on the hilltop, facing the foe, and angels bear his soul to heaven.

Charlemagne arrives upon the battlefield, lamenting his subjects’ deaths. He rides ahead, by himself, in search of Roland, whose corpse he finds atop the hill. Roland has turned his head toward the enemy so that he would be reckoned to have died as a conqueror.

Charlemagne gives Roland, Oliver, and Archbishop Turpin heroes’ funerals and an escort to their burial places.
By including the information that Marsilion will renege on his promises to ally himself with Charlemagne and convert to the Christian faith after Charlemagne returns to France, even at the cost of the hostages’ lives, the poet gives the audience too much information too soon, thereby destroying the suspense which could have been created by having the audience assume that Marsilion would keep his word. In other words, such information destroys the potential for situational irony, which is one of the ways, as I point out in a previous article, of maintaining narrative suspense, because the reader assumes that this is the same thing that Marsilion will do to Charlemagne. This information telegraphs the action that is yet to come, so to speak, alerting the reader to incidents that would have been better left unknown until their occurrence. The same is true with regard to Roland’s reminder to Charlemagne of how Marsilion made a similar proposal earlier, only to kill the envoys whom Charlemagne sent to discuss the enemy’s proposal and Roland’s suggestion that Charlemagne continue to prosecute the war with Marsilion so that the envoys’ murders can be avenged.

The audience also does not need to be made privy to Ganelon’s plan to seek revenge upon Roland or to his intention of doing whatever he can to settle his score with Roland as he confers with Marsilion. Instead, Ganelon should do so as the opportunity arises in his conduct as Charlemagne’s emissary to the Saracen king, allowing the reader to surmise on his or her own the duplicity and motives of Ganelon’s treachery.

The eclipse that seems to portend Roland’s death is also both unnecessary and too early. The descriptions of Roland’s increasing weakness, his fainting, his blood loss, and his confused states of mind are sufficient to suggest his impending death; the eclipse is too strong a clue, too early in the action, and its inclusion, therefore, deadens the story’s suspense. It would have been better left out altogether.

There remains but one point to discuss--the difference between foreshadowing and divulging too much information too soon. Foreshadowing is effective in generating suspense, because it whets the reader’s appetite, so to speak, without giving away too much of the action to come. Foreshadowing teases by suggesting something in vague and general terms. Because it is vague and general in its intimation of things to come, foreshadowing does not destroy suspense but, indeed, creates it. When the poet warns the audience that the counsel between Charlemagne and his nobles went wrong at its very outset, he does not say how or why it went wrong, only that it did so. Therefore, left to wonder how and why the counsel went amiss, the audience is in suspense, eager to learn the answers to these questions.

Charlemagne’s dreams, or visions, also create suspense for similar reasons. They are presented in images and symbols, rather than being directly stated, and are, therefore, more spectacle than they are exposition; they are also vague and general, rather than clear and specific, suggesting, rather than declaring, that something injurious or even fatal may transpire. The dreams tease the audience; in doing so, they create, rather than destroy, suspense.

By plotting the story in full, from beginning to end, the writer can keep his or her story on track while avoiding plot holes. At the same time, he or she can identify opportunities to include suspense-generating foreshadowing, red herrings ,and plot twists while avoiding the tipping of his or her hand by giving away too much information too soon. The trick is to identify what information should be withheld until later in the narrative so as not to destroy the story’s suspense. One way to do so is to use the technique I employed in summarizing the plot of The Song of Roland, which is to mark this type of exposition by coloring it blue (or some other color). The colored text may need to be included, as explanation, at some later point in the narrative, but its presentation too early in the course of the action will have the unintended effect of destroying the suspense which is vital in maintaining reader’s interest in the story. It is far better to keep readers on a need-to-know basis, dribbling out explanatory information only when it is needed to make things clear or (usually at the story’s end) entirely comprehensible.

In short, it may be helpful to remember that, if Christopher Columbus had explained lunar eclipses to the hostile natives of Jamaica before threatening to make the moon disappear the next night unless they cooperated with him and his crew, the natives would have not been impressed to see the moon apparently vanish as it passed into the shadow of the Earth, for they would have understood the cause of the phenomenon and would have understood that the moon would reappear as soon as it had passed out of the Earth’s shadow. Since they did not know the cause of the eclipse, they were terrified when it occurred, assuming that Columbus himself had caused this wonder to happen, and they were anxious to put things right with this powerful sorcerer. By withholding explanatory information (indefinitely, in this case) from his audience--the Jamaicans--Columbus generated suspense as the natives waited, watching, to see whether their visitor’s “curse” would transpire; when it did, they were terrified.

Had Columbus related this story to an audience who was unaware of the cause of lunar eclipses, his listeners would have been in suspense as well, and, after he explained why the moon had seemingly vanished, his audience would have felt satisfied because they would have learned something significant about the cause-and-effect universe in which they live. The fact that there is a cause behind this seemingly wondrous event would reassure them that, in fact, apparently capricious incidents do not take place and that there is order in the universe. Confidence in such order gives them security. However, by first disrupting this sense of security, by making them feel unsafe, by casting doubt upon their belief in the orderliness of their universe, by making them wonder whether nature is, in fact, ruled by laws, writers of horror can (like Columbus) deliver a delicious jolt of fear to their audience, helping to keep readers from becoming too complacent. In horror fiction, fear is created through suspense, and supplying too much information too soon deadens this all-important effect.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Horror Subsets

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

In Terror Television: American Series, 1970-1999's "Commentary" on The X-Files, John Kenneth Muir offers a helpful classification of the show’s “subsections of horror,” breaking the types of antagonists that the FBI’s Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully face each week into ten groups:

  1. “Trust No One,” which involves “secret experiments” that “the U. S. government. . . is conducting on its own people”
  2. “Freaks of Nature,” which presents “mutants and monsters,” some of which are “just beasts,” others of which are “evolutionary nightmares,” and still others of which are “genetic mutants”
  3. “Foreign Fears,” comprised of “ancient ethnic legends” which happen “to have a basis in fact”
  4. “From the Dawn of Time,” featuring prehistoric “creatures” which “reassert themselves in present time”
  5. “Aliens!,” or “extraterrestrial creatures”
  6. “God’s Masterplan,” which is replete with “elements of Christian religion/mythology” which are “explored as ‘real’ concepts”
  7. “The Serial Killer”
  8. “Psychic Phenomena,” such as “astral projection. . . clairvoyance. . . soul transmission,
    and. . . the effect of heavenly bodies on human bodies”
  9. “The Mytharc”/”Conspiracy,” comprised of “the history of the government’s association with aliens”
  10. Tried-and-trued “Standards” of the horror genre, which is populated by “the vampire. . . the werewolf. . . ghosts. . . crazy computers. . . matters of time. . . succubi. . . cannibalism. . . tattoos. . . Evil dolls. . . and the like” (353).

“In addition to these ten plots,” Muir observes, “The X-Files has also showed a commendable dedication to asking the great questions of our time, and telling stories about the most puzzling mysteries humankind has yet faced,” so that an eleventh “subsection of horror” discernable in the series is the episodes that center upon “The Mysteries” (354).

Muir’s categorization of the types of threats that the series’ protagonists face is interesting in itself, but it is also interesting because it represents an approach that writers of horror may adopt for themselves in the writing and development of their own oeuvres. A writer who writes a series, whether of television episodes, novels, or even short stories that are unified by a theme, as those, for example of Ray Bradbury and H. P. Lovecraft sometimes are, can take a leaf from Muir’s classification of the “subsections” common to The X-Files’ exploration of the horror genre.

Just as a literary genre tends to develop stock characters and characteristic settings, it also tends to evolve typical themes and situations. These situations, in fact, can, and should, support the themes, as those of The X-Files do. For example, Muir assigns the following X-Files episodes to the “Trust No One” category: “Eve,” “Ghost in the Machine,” “Blood,” “Sleepless,” “Red Museum,” “F. Emasculata,” “Soft Light,” “Wetwired,” “Zero Sum,” “The Pine Bluff Variant,” “Drive,” and “Dreamland (I & II)” (353). Taken together, he says, these episodes express “paranoia” which results from the government’s violations of “its sacred trust to represent the people,” as its agents seem “capable of any atrocity, including murder and cover-ups” (353). Eugenics experiments, bioengineered disease, experiments with dark matter, mind control, bee-delivered plague, and the like are enough to make paranoia a rational, rather than an irrational, response to the an unscrupulous government that is clearly out of control.

Muir points out eleven sources for horror; others might be space, crackpot theories or visions, the biochemical foundations of animal and human existence, arcane and mystical traditions and lore, religious cults, alternate histories and universes, conspiracies and cover-ups, dangerous self-fulfilling prophecies, solipsism, actual unsolved mysteries of crime or history (what really became of the Lost Colony of Roanoke?) and, always, of course, the seven deadly sins.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Stock Situations Useful to Horror Fiction

Copyright 2010 by Gary L.Pullman

Oral storytellers invented stock situations--sets of circumstances that could be used over and over again, perhaps with some tweaking, throughout a story or among different stories of the same cycle or genre. Many of these situations continue to be used by today’s storytellers. Some are especially fruitful for horror writers. In this post, I identify a few.

One of the earliest of these stock situations might be called the taming of the brute. The early part of The Epic of Gilgamesh recounts how a prostitute tamed the wild man Enkidu, who, after he was bested in single combat by Gilgamesh, became friends with the epic poem’s protagonist, accompanying him, much as Iolaus accompanied Hercules, on his feats of derring-do. The taming of the beast is the main plot of Beauty and the Beast, as it is of King Kong. More often, this storyline makes up only a part of the greater story, and it may be treated ironically. The scientist’s attempt to befriend the alien plant in The Thing, for example, not only endangers the other researchers at the arctic outpost that the creature attacks but is, as it turns out, the death of the scientist himself. (As I point out in a previous article, fairy tales, in general, form the basis of many horror stories; Stephen King himself points to Cinderella as having been, in part, the inspiration for his first novel, Carrie.)

The locked box (or locked room) situation is as old as the ancient Greek myth about Pandora and the story of Blackbeard the pirate. It was used recently in the movie Skeleton Key, starring Kate Hudson. Stories in which other objects--or, for that matter, persons or places--are forbidden are also examples of this stock situation.

The invaded community situation is as old as Beowulf, in which the Danes’ Heorot hall is invaded by the maraudering Grendel and Peter Benchley’s Jaws, in which a great white shark attacks swimmers off the coast of the beachfront town of Amity or even The Exorcist, in which the devil invades the MacNeil’s Georgetown residence and, indeed, Regan’s body. (Of course, the prototype of the invasion plot is Satan's invasion of Eden!)

In the ancient Greek myth that bears his name, Pygmalion attempted to create what he regarded as the perfect woman, an idea that Mary Shelley revised in her novel Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, in which Victor von Frankenstein attempts to create, if not the perfect man, at least a male human being fashioned of the body parts of various corpses, a stock situation put to a different use in the campy flick The Rocky Horror Picture Show. This same situation occurs, but with a female resuming the place of honor as the creation, in the movie Bride of Frankenstein, in which the scientist tries to honor his monster’s desire for a main squeeze and again in “Some Assembly Required,” an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in which a younger brother tries to assemble a girlfriend for his once-dead older brother, whom he pieced together earlier. Likewise, the Buffy episode in which Warren Mears creates a robotic girlfriend, April, for himself. It might even be argued that the Arnold Schwarzenegger series of Terminator films make use of the man-made man or man-made woman stock situation that was introduced, perhaps, in the ancient Pandora myth.

The taming of the brute, the lost box or room, the invaded community, the man-made man or woman, and the man-made beast are all examples of stock situations which continue to be used (and reused) in horror fiction. By identifying the situations that recur in short stories, novels, and movies, you can add others to your list and, as a result, have a readymade source of storylines to adapt to your own storytelling purposes.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Quick Tip: Let Your Setting Suggest Your Characters

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

A middle school literature textbook presents three lines of dialogue between two characters, asking students to imagine the words spoken in several very different settings, thereby hoping to impress upon them the importance of setting in establishing a context for how what is said is said. This is an interesting approach, and one that can also work for horror writers (or authors of any kind). For example. Imagine these lines of dialogue spoken in a cemetery:

Character A: Where’s Henry?
Character B: He has to be here, somewhere!
Character A: Yeah, it’s not likely he’s wandered off anywhere.

Is Henry a corpse?
Now, imagine the same lines of dialogue spoken in a supposedly haunted house:

Character A: Where’s Henry?
Character B: He has to be here, somewhere!
Character A: Yeah, it’s not likely he’s wandered off anywhere.

Did a ghost get Henry?

In a lifeboat on the open sea:

Character A: Where’s Henry?
Character B: He has to be here, somewhere!
Character A: Yeah, it’s not likely he’s wandered off anywhere.

Did Henry, perhaps delusional, leap overboard while the others slept?
In a spaceship:

Character A: Where’s Henry?
Character B: He has to be here, somewhere!
Character A: Yeah, it’s not likely he’s wandered off anywhere.

Did an alien stowaway capture or kill Henry?
Remember that almost every situation that involves more than one character (and some scenes which involve only one character) is likely to have at least two, and sometimes more, points of view, which allows at least two lines of development for the dialogue. For example, visitors to a cemetery (or even grave robbers) might enquire as to Henry’s whereabouts--or the whereabouts of his grave--concluding that he must be somewhere nearby, since corpses cannot “wander off anywhere,” or Henry could be another of their group, a third visitor (or grave robber). For that matter, Henry could be the son, or even a pet dog ,of one of the characters. Likewise, in the haunted house, Henry could be a ghost hunter or a ghost. He could be one of a group of homeless men who has suddenly somehow disappeared or a police officer who had been, a moment ago, investigating the place with his partner and a couple of backup police officers. Maybe Henry isn’t a delusional shipwreck survivor; instead, maybe he is a character in the delusion of one or more of the survivors and, as such, exists only in their fevered dreams. Likewise, Henry may not be a member of the spaceship’s crew or a passenger aboard the spaceship; he could be a live specimen of an extraterrestrial species that the astronauts have captured and are bringing home to earth for study. He could be a criminal who is being transported to a prison planet. He could be the one and only mechanic who is able to repair the ship’s faulty impulse-drive before the craft falls into the planet it’s orbiting.

By exploring other possibilities than the one that comes first to mind, a writer can perhaps surprise, shock, or even horrify, the reader. The writers of The Others do just this, suggesting to their audience that the protagonist, Grace Stewart, and her children and servants are being haunted, whereas, in fact, as incidents toward the end of the film show, it is she, her son and daughter, and the servants who are the ghosts who are haunting the house’s mortal residents. Imagining the same lines of dialogue spoken by characters in different settings is a way to accomplish similar sleights of mind.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Quick Tip: The Importance of Setting

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

In “‘Closer Than an Eye’: The Interconnections of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Colin N. Manlove does a great job of reminding his readers of the importance of the setting to a story. “The Gothic novel,” he writes, “usually employs as its setting some remote land, castle, tarn or wilderness: but here [in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde] the hideous events take place in the midst of the relatively populated streets of London. . . because the purpose of this novel is to show the dark side of one peculiar man’s respectable and citified self.” Moreover, the setting, common to both the novel’s protagonist and the other residents of the city, show him to be of the same sort as they; “they are seen in some way to share in his situation. . . . All in the story tread the same streets, inhabit the same fog” (The Dark Fantastic, 3). In the same article, Manlove points out the way that Robert Louis Stevenson creates, through description, a link between his main character and a row of buildings along a street:

The street of shops looks outward to a public; it is concerned with putting on a fine front and drawing people in. The building that juts forward has only an unopened door, no windows, and neither bell nor knocker on the door. Its preoccupation is with exclusion. . . . Yet it is part of the street, even if it is not integrated with it and thrusts its way forward. Both the street and the house are personified: the street drives a thriving trade, the shop fronts invite “like rows of smiling saleswomen” and veil their more florid charms on Sundays. The “sinister block of building. . . thrust[s] forth its gable on the street,” had “a blind forehead of discoloured wall” and bears “the marks of negligence in every feature.” It is not much of a leap to see the shops as suggestive of the respectable, ambitious civil area of mind--in short, all that Jekyll is to seem to be . . (6).
Chillers and Thrillers’ articles have likewise stressed the effectiveness of appropriate settings to horror, one example of which is the essay concerning Bram Stoker’s short story “Dracula’s Guest.”

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Quick Tip: Irony and Its Uses in Horror Fiction

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Since O. Henry (and before), writers have surprised readers by ending stories with surprises, or twists. Twisting one’s tale often results from the use of irony--dramatic, verbal, or situational. However, irony can also be used to create humor, to sensationalize moments or incidents, and to generate and heighten suspense.

Narrative suspense results from dramatic irony. In dramatic irony, the reader knows more than one or more of the characters involved in a scene. For example, the monster might wait in ambush, at the intersection of tunnels just ahead; the reader knows this, but the character or characters traveling through the tunnel do not.

Verbal irony is often used in humor. The narrator or a character in the story says the opposite of what he or she means. Example: Seeing a dark sky, feeling a heaviness in the air, and seeing and feeling the effects of rising winds, a character might say, “What mild weather we’re having today!” In horror fiction, verbal irony can sensationalize; for example, a character might say, “Vampires aren’t nearly as scary as I thought they’d be--they’re way more terrifying!” Verbal irony, as it is used, for example, in Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, can also foreshadow future incidents or situations.

Suspense often relies upon situational irony, which occurs when one situation causes readers to expect a particular outcome, but a later situation either resolves the earlier one in an unexpected way or takes the plot in a new, unanticipated direction. Example: A scientist may be confident that he has the technological means by which to neutralize or destroy a monster, but, when he tries to do so, the technology either has no effect or an unintended effect that actually makes matters worse.

Which type of irony is used in each of these scenes?

1. Montressor wishes Fortunato a long life as Montressor leads Fortunato to his death, and, when Fortunato assures Montressor, “I will not die of a cough,” Montressor [who kills his victim by sealing Fortunato inside a wall] agrees, replying, “True--true.”)

Answer: Verbal (It happens in in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.”)

2. Revenants suspected of being zombies turn out to be lobotomized.

Answer: Situational (It happens in Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Cemetery Dance.)

3. Kendra thinks Buffy Summers is a vampire because Kendra sees Buffy kissing a vampire (Angel); Kendra doesn’t know that Buffy is a fellow vampire slayer who has fallen in love with Angel, whose soul was restored to him in a Gypsy curse.

Answer: Dramatic (It happens in an episode of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)

Monday, January 4, 2010

Macho Menswear

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

As I pointed out in a previous article, “Quick Tips: 12 Methods of Characterization,” describing a character’s appearance is one way to characterize him or her.

There are books--maybe even whole libraries--concerning feminine fashion, and, as someone who buys his own wardrobe, such as it is, off the rack at Wal-Mart, I wouldn’t presume to suggest what women should or should not wear, and I probably shouldn’t presume to make many--or even any--such suggestions to men, either, about what they should or should not wear.

However, even a fashion Neanderthal can (and should) do the research necessary to describe the clothing that one of his or her characters wears in a story, particularly when attire is important to the character’s personality and to the reader’s perception of his or her personality.
Let’s assume that your horror story’s protagonist is a macho, macho man, like Alien’s Lt. Ripley.

Here are some tips as to how to bring his machismo forward, for all the world, you readers included, to admire.

You can’t go wrong with black leather, the fabric of choice for both military men and outlaw biker gangs. The black leather jacket is simple. It’s sleek. It’s elegant. It exudes masculinity. On Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel wears it, Spike wears it, and even Xander wears it, albeit in the form of an eye patch.

Real men wear leather, too. Marlon Brando, James Dean, Gary Cooper, Jim Morrison, Mel Gibson, Samuel L. Jackson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ben Affleck, Mark Wahlberg, James Marsden, Hugh Jackman, John Wayne (or their cinematographic characters, at least) all wore leather, some routinely, others occasionally. Even George W. Bush wore leather, proving, perhaps, that the exception (that "real men wear leather") really does prove the rule.

As macho menswear, jeans are always a safe bet, too. Even the history of jeans is macho: Jacob Davis, a tailor during the days of the Western frontier, was hired to make a pair of trousers so rugged that they could withstand even the wear and tear to which a female customer’s husband routinely subjected his pants. At the time, Davis was making covers for wagons, tents, and horse blankets, and he used copper rivets to attach straps to the blankets. These rivets, he reasoned, could also be used to fasten the pockets of the rugged pants he’d designed from his stock of white cotton duck cloth. The result was a pair of trousers as durable as the Wild West itself, even when blue denim later replaced the duck fabric, and an enduring accoutrement of masculinity was made available to rugged frontiersmen everywhere when other tailors began to make similar trousers (“Jacob Davis: His Life and Contributions,” Levi Strauss & Company).

Plaid shirts are also a signifier of machismo, thanks to the lumberjacks who wear them. Any garment macho enough for the likes of Paul Bunyan, who (according to Shel Silverstein, at least) bested a thunderstorm in single combat, is macho enough for any man.

Because soldiers, Marines, and other military men (and, nowadays, women), as well as hunters, wear them, camouflage shirts and pants are definitely macho clothing. One may expect Sarah Palin to wear camouflage clothing, perhaps, in her next run, assuming there is one, at the presidency.

I could go on and, possibly, on, but I’ve done enough research already to uncover the principle at work in suiting a macho male character up for action, whether against cannibals, a demon horde, a mad scientist, vampires, zombies, or the extraterrestrial monsters that Lt. Ripley and her crew engage in hand-to-claw combat in deep space: simply identify the type of clothing that men in macho roles, whether cowboys or frontiersmen, lumberjacks, military personnel, outlaw bikers, or otherwise, wear in the performance of their duties and have your guy wear the same outfits, or, possibly, a combination thereof.

Oh, and don’t forget to accessorize him with, say an eye patch, a la Nick Fury or Nicholas Brendon (as Xander Harris) or a bandana or headband, a la John Rambo.

Although, as I admit, I’m the last person anyone should ask for advice about fashion, especially as it pertains to women, it may be safe (or not) to assume that a similar, but slightly more complex, principle for characterizing female characters as feminine (or not) applies: to identify what might be called “Femme Fashion,” first check out the ladies who are considered especially glamorous, such as movie stars or models, and see what they wear; then, consider what critics say about what these ladies wear and, when there’s enough of a match between the famous woman’s wardrobe choice and critical opinion, you’re likely, as a writer, to have about as safe a bet as there is in such sacred matters as women’s wear and you can (more or less) safely describe your horror heroine as wearing such a costume without alienating either, say, Sarah Michelle Gellar or Michelle Obama.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Learning from the Masters: The Art of the Publicity Ploy

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes it seems that some novels (and movies) are like Douglas MacArthur’s old soldiers; they “never die, they just fade away” (eventually). Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have published a “lost” chapter of their first novel Relic on their official website, with the caveat that the chapter really isn’t lost, and never was; it was “just asleep,” which is to say replaced by a substitute. In it, the FBI’s Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast interviews Margo Green, a museum employee who “knows a lot more about what's really going on than she realizes” about the murders Detective Vincent D’Agosta and Pendergast are investigating.

The authors find their characterization of Prendergast and their planting of a red herring concerning the criminal past of New York Times reporter Bill Smithback awkward and unnecessary, respectively, and include the “lost” chapter, presumably, to show their readers that they are not perfect, that writing is a process, and that the resurrection of a discarded chapter can seem, at least, to offer something that, although not new or original, is still somehow worthwhile to a website. However, one gets the impression that the point of publishing the piece is more promotional than pedagogical.

Robert R. McCammon seems to take the opposite approach to generating publicity for his works, refusing to allow his first four novels to ever again see the light of day because of their inferiority to the rest of his oeuvre. Gee, a writer who is that concerned with the quality of his writing must be a writer, indeed! we’re apparently to think. I mean, here is a guy who’s willing to put his art above mere profit. One doesn’t encounter such integrity very often, in or out of the publishing world. The problem with such reasoning is that several of his other early novels are little, if any, better. Usher’s Passing (1984), The Wolf’s Hour (1989), and Mine (1990), for example, are certainly not among the best of which McCammon is capable, although they are still in print. Still, as a publicity ploy, his refusal to allow the republication of Baal (1978), Bethany’s Sin 1980), The Night Boat 1980), and They Thirst (1981) has surely earned him attention and even some respect. (Of course, these volumes may well be published again,. posthumously, earning his estate the money they are not now making for the author himself.)

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Quick Tip: 12 Methods of Characterization

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

There are at least a dozen ways by which a writer can characterize his or her characters:
  1. Comment directly: “John was as brave as he was reckless.”
  2. Describe the character’s appearance: “John was square-faced, with penetrating, but kind eyes, which always seemed secretly amused at a private joke, but his firm jaw and thin lips belied any sense of frivolity.”
  3. Use allusion, comparing a character to another familiar literary character, to a celebrity, or even to a famous cartoon or comic strip character: “John’s lantern jaw, narrow eyes, and beaked nose made him a living embodiment of the cartoon detective Dick Tracy.”
  4. Show the character performing an action: “John jammed the .38 in the thug’s ribs.”
  5. Use dialogue: “‘If you move, you’re dead; it’s as simple as that. I’m taking you back to face a judge and jury, to face justice,’ John said.”
  6. Reveal the character’s thoughts: “The American judicial system was far from perfect, John thought, but it was better than those in countries in which a defendant was guilty until proved innocent.”
  7. Describe the character’s emotions: “John was satisfied that the killer would be forced to pay for his crime, but he was sorry for the young woman he‘d killed and for the victim‘s family.”
  8. Describe the character’s facial expressions and body language: “Arms crossed over his chest, an eyebrow arched, John scowled at the speaker,”
  9. Let another character summarize his or her thoughts about the character who is being characterized: “Sue knew that John was a man of determination and courage, a man of honor and true grit.”
  10. Let another character summarize his or her feelings about the character who is being characterized: “Sue felt safe when she was with John; she felt something else, too, something that made her blush.”
  11. Link the character’s past to his or her present situation or circumstances: “Having served in combat had given John the steel backbone and granite will that would serve him so well in his present one-man vigilante war on crime.”
  12. Use “props”: “Regardless of the suit or the occasion, John wore an American flag pin on his lapel.”

By the way, Happy New Year!

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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