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Friday, February 12, 2010


Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

One of the things I enjoy reading about is how businesses solve problems. When the business involves storytelling, the reading is, for me, all the more interesting.

Consequently, reading about how Merian C. Cooper, the executive producer of Son of Kong (he had also produced King Kong, of course) was told that he had to limit himself to a budge to a budget of $250,000 (originally $238,000), solved the problem of making the movie on a shoestring, as it were, was fascinating.

What he did was to “scale the project back considerably,” Ray Morton recounts in King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon from Fay Wray to Peter Jackson. This scaling back required Cooper to revise “the script, condensing and simplifying all the way through,” so that some scenes were eliminated altogether and the film’s action sequences were combined or juxtaposed without the originally intended transitions. For example, Morton writes:
To save money on recreating the native village and the Great Wall, the scenes set in the village were eliminated--the natives would nor confront the landing party on the beach and refuse to allow them to come ashore, forcing them to row around the island looking for a landing spot. When Denham’s party finally did land, it would be right near the site of the temple, eliminating the need for any lengthy treks through the jungle. The remaining jungle and temple scenes were all consolidated so that they would take place in just two primary locations. . . (95).
Short story writers and novelists don’t face such restrictions, because they don’t have to film their stories. However, by imagining that they are forced, by the vagaries of the economy, the whims of studio executives, or other unanticipated problems, to make similar changes to their plots, settings, or cast of characters, such writers could learn (or hone) their skills in plot development, description, and characterization, which is always a good thing.

Imagine that you are plotting a story about a radio talk show host, while operating a metal detector, which he does as a hobby, finds an artifact in the Nevada desert. It is inscribed with odd characters. Suspecting that the piece may be worth a fortune (and that it may even be of an otherworldly origin), the man attempts to decipher the strange characters inscribed upon the relic. He is unable to find the characters in any of the sources he consults at a major university. Finally, he decides to copy them onto a sheet of paper and take the paper to an anthropologist at the same university. Unable to identify or decipher the characters, the anthropologist consults a linguist. The linguist is a consultant for a secret government project which is recording a history of an alien species in its own language--the strange characters on the artifact that the talk show host found--and the linguist alerts the government that the talk show host has discovered the object that was lost decades ago. The talk show host is taken for a ride by government agents who inform him that the government has confiscated the artifact and threaten him not to divulge anything about his discovery. After going into hiding, the talk show host tells everything to his audience during a show and promises to share the characters with the world in the hope that someone somewhere can decipher them and interpret the message on the artifact that the government has confiscated.

So far, so good, you think.

But, then, out of the blue, you are told that your story cannot feature either an alien species or the government. You have to shoot a retake, as it were, to provide another explanation for the mysterious characters.

Perhaps you come up with something like this: a radio talk show host, while operating a metal detector, which he does as a hobby, finds an artifact in the Nevada desert. It is inscribed with odd characters. Suspecting that the piece may be worth a fortune (and that it may even be of an otherworldly origin), the man attempts to decipher the strange characters inscribed upon the relic. He is unable to find the characters in any of the sources he consults at a major university. Finally, he decides to copy them onto a sheet of paper and take the paper to an anthropologist at the same university. Unable to identify or decipher the characters, the anthropologist consults a linguist. The linguist identifies the characters as belonging to a lost tribe of ancient mystics. Finally able to interpret the characters, the linguist says that they are the words to an incantation that supposedly summons The Nameless One, which he believes is the tribe’s guardian daemon. On his show, the radio talk show host recites the linguist’s “wild story” and reads the translated text aloud, joking that he hopes he hasn’t thereby summoned the tribal daemon.

You’d now have two explanations for the origin and significance of the characters. As a result, you can create a more sophisticated plot. For example, perhaps the linguist’s account of the artifact’s characters is a deliberate falsehood, told to deceive the talk show host as to the true origin and significance of the inscription, which is that it really is a history of an alien species, written in their own language, which the government wants to cover up. When he subsequently learns the truth, the host can then tell everything to his audience during a show and promise to share the characters with the world in the hope that someone somewhere can decipher them and interpret the message on the artifact that the government has confiscated.

By further tweaking the original storyline, you can add more twists to the plot. Maybe your imaginary studio executive says he wants the host to advertise the characters on billboards before he announces the truth bout his discovery on his radio show, and, in major market areas across the country, the strange symbols appear on billboards, without explanation (ore perhaps with the caption, “Curious? Listen to KXYZ radio’s Hot Talk.” At first, you may think the exec’s demand asinine, but what can you do but humor him. You revise your plot, incorporating the billboards. In the process, you must explain why the talk show host posted the message on billboards rather than just explain things on his radio show.

Maybe his show is local, but he wants a national audience. Maybe he wants to protect himself against possible reprisals by the government or the aliens (or both). Maybe he is trying, as it were, to smoke the extraterrestrials out of their hideout, wherever it may be.

In this manner, by forcing yourself to plot and revise, shooting “retakes,” as it were of scenes and acts that you’ve already filmed (that is, written), you may facilitate your creativity as a writer, develop less straightforward (and predictable) plots, heighten suspense, and compose more sophisticated and complex plots.

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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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