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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Horror Trilogies: Not Quite Triptychs

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

A trilogy is a three-part series of novels, each of which tells a separate story, intelligible in itself, but which also, collectively, make up a longer, continuous narrative that is unified by various elements, such as the same cast of characters, the same settings, and the same or similar themes.

Perhaps one of the better known modern trilogies is J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast is also a well-known fantasy trilogy. Trilogies are relatively rare among horror novels.

The Pine Deep Trilogy, by Jonathan Maberry, is such a series, however. It focuses upon the “Most Haunted Town in America,” the futuristic Pine Deep, Pennsylvania. The trilogy’s title volumes are Ghost Road Blues, devoted to the pursuit of serial killer Karl Ruger, who is attracted to Pine Deep by the ancient evil that resides thereabout; Dead Man’s Song (2007); and Bad Moon Rising (2008). The initial volume won the 2006 Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel, the horror genre’s highest prize.

The plot?

Thirty years before the opening of the series’ present-day story, Oren Morse, a traveling field hand and blues musician whom the community’s children nickname the “Bone Man,” kills Ubel Griswold, a werewolf who’d been terrorizing Pine Deep. Local racists, blaming Morse for Griswold’s killings, murder Morse. Fifteen years later, Griswold’s spirit awakens, and, assisted by Vic Wingate, the werewolf seeks revenge upon Pine Deep.

Among those whom Morse saved was nine-year old Malcolm Crow, who now owns a craft store based upon a Halloween theme. His fiancé, Val Guthrie, is also a survivor of the original massacre. Their friend, Pine Deep’s mayor, Terry Wolfe, suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of his sister’s having been murdered (and his own near murder) by Griswold.

In Ghost Road Blues, Ruger attacks Val and her family again. Wingate’s adopted son, Mike Sweeney, who dreams of confronting various evils, is targeted by Tow-Truck Eddie after “God” tells Eddie that Mike is the antichrist. In reality, “God’s” voice is that of Griswold.

In Dead Man’s Song, Crow and local newsman Willard Fowler Newton, research the events of thirty years ago, while Wingate and Ruger assemble an army of the undead for Griswold to command during the “Red Wave,” a massive attack on Halloween night. While Crow and Newton visit Dark Hollow, where Griswold had both lived and died, one of Ruger’s companions, Boyd, becomes a vampire and Griswold’s ghost sets a trap for Crow, as Wingate sends Boyd after Val.

In Bad Moon Rising, Crow and his friends learn the truth concerning their foes, just as the Red Wave is about to get underway.

The formula for Maberry’s trilogy is simple, but effective:
1. An ancient evil returns.
2. The ancient evil repeats its atrocities.
3. Armed with knowledge concerning the ancient evil, the protagonist combats it.
Another trilogy by a well-known writer who has written horror fiction in the past and still dabbles in the genre on occasion is Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein series: Prodigal Son, co-authored with Kevin J. Anderson (2004), City of Night, co-authored with Ed Gorman (2005), and Dead and Alive (2009). (Now we know, I guess, how "Koontz" manages to write so many novels so quickly; he has more help than just his handful of psuedonyms.)

Dead Souls (2010) launches a second trilogy on the same theme.

Koontz, whose plots are often recycled and derivative of his own previous work and the works of others, is at least making no bones about such redundancies in the writing and co-writing of these trilogies.

In Koontz’s Frankenstein update, Victor Frankenstein, now going by the name Victor Helios, has set up shop, so to speak, in New Orleans, where he uses synthetic biology to create a new race of androids as replacements for the human race, much to the chagrin of his nemeses, police detectives, Carson O’Connor and Michael Madison, and his original monster, who is now known as Deucalion. The new creatures’ personalities are downloaded directly into their brains through the wonders of computer technology.

The plot?

In Prodigal Son, O’Connor and Madison pursue a serial killer dubbed “The Surgeon.” Attracted by the killer’s serial murders, Frankenstein’s monster believes that his creator has somehow returned.

In City of Night, the detectives team up with the monster to stop Helios and the army of programmed android killers that Helios has unleashed upon New Orleans.

In Dead and Alive, the series’ grand finale takes place as Deucalion leads the hordes of his master’s creatures against Helios himself in a confrontation that is part showdown and part revenge. Koontz, however, hints at the sequel that is to launch his second Frankenstein series. After all, there’s gold in them thar monsters.

The formula for Koontz’s trilogy is simple, but effective:
1. An ancient evil returns.
2. The ancient evil repeats its atrocities.
3. Armed with knowledge concerning the ancient evil, the protagonist combats it.
The formula for both Maberry’s and Koontz’s trilogies suggest that Stephen King’s It could have been a trilogy; at over 1,000 pages, it is certainly long enough to have been broken into three installments, in which the first, the second, and the third, respectively, would present a plot in which--
1. An ancient evil returns.
2. The ancient evil repeats its atrocities.
3. Armed with knowledge concerning the ancient evil, the protagonist combats it.
Wait! Isn’t that also the plot of King’s Desperation? And of Dan Simmons’ Summer of Night? And of Bentley Little’s The Resort? And. . . .mmm. . . it seems we may be onto something here (maybe the reason there are comparatively so few horror novel trilogies).


Jayden Eden said...

I love reading horror trilogies about ancient evils. It is very interesting to me. Thank you for posting this.

Gary L. Pullman said...

You're welcome, Jayden. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

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.

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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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