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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.

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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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