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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.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Todorov:

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

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

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

My Cup of Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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