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Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Lull Before the Storm

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Chiller Channel startles viewers by juxtaposing a serene scene against a horrific one. In one such instance, a man is shown fishing, waist deep in a lake, surrounded by bucolic beauty. Ironically, despite its crueler aspects (the hooking of an innocent creature whose taking of bait is prelude to a desperate struggle that is apt to end in its terrifying, agonizing, and violent death), fishing is associated, by many, with relaxation and the enjoyment of nature.

After the man is shown enjoying the serenity and majesty of the lake, set among the sylvan splendor of a forested mountain, for several moments, a horrific image flashes on the screen, shocking and disturbing the viewer. Text follows, suggesting a purpose for this intrusion of horror upon a scene of pastoral serenity and bliss: “We just wanted to make sure you were awake.”

This technique, sometimes referred to as “the lull before the storm,” including the humorous undercurrent (at times, at least), is a staple in horror fiction, especially in the novel and its cinematic equivalent, the major motion picture. Examples abound, so I will offer but a few, confident that others will recall many additional ones.

The storm doesn’t have to involve violence. It may simply relate terrifying or horrific information, such as the origin of the monster or an account of its previous deeds.

(By the way, it is instructive to consider what storytellers accomplish during the lulls in the narrative or drama’s action. Usually, these are occasions for characterization or the exposition needed to explain the current situation or otherwise advance the plot.)

Example 1: A Nightmare on Elm Street

The Lull: In A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Tina Gray, Nancy Thompson, and Nancy’s boyfriend, Glen Lantz, stay overnight together after both Tina and Nancy have nightmares about a man with a badly burned face and razor-clawed hands pursuing them. Tina’s boyfriend, Rod Lane, joins Tina, and they sleep in her mother’s bed.

The Storm: This togetherness is reassuring for the teens, but their comfort is soon destroyed when the villain puts in an appearance, murdering Tina in her sleep after he enters her dreams.

The Lull: In the same film, Nancy is later taken to a dream therapy clinic, where she is hooked up to an array of scientific instruments while she sleeps in an observation room, behind a glass wall.

The Storm: The presence of scientists and the clinical setting are both comforting--until Nancy has a nightmare in which the antagonist again appears, and Nancy awakens with a cut arm, clutching the would-be killer’s worn, felt hat.

In another relatively restrained, if not serene, scene, Nancy’s alcoholic mother, Marge, provides her daughter with the secret behind the villain’s supernatural powers: he is Freddy Krueger, a child-killer whom Marge and the community’s other parents trapped inside a boiler room and burned to death ten years ago, after he was released from prison on a technicality, having murdered twenty or more children.

Example 2: The Bad Place

The Lull: In The Bad Place (1990), a Dean Koontz novel, Frank Pollard awakens surrounded by strange objects, unable to account for his apparent journeys during sleep.

The Storm: However, he senses that he is being pursued by a relentless assassin of some kind.

The Lull: He is reassured by the skills of the husband-wife team of private investigators whom he hires, Bobby and Julie Dakota.

The Storm: The Dakotas uncover the true nature of Frank and his evil brother, Candy, both of whom were born of a hermaphroditic mother who impregnated herself with her own sperm.
A Twist Upon This Technique: The Sanctuary Amidst Hell
A twist upon this technique, which is also widely used in horror novels and films, is the alternation between a safe house or place of refuge and the hostile territory that surrounds it or the antagonist’s turf.

Example 1: Desperation

Stephen King takes this approach in Desperation (1996). After David Carver escapes from the town’s jail, freeing his fellow hostages, the band takes refuge in an abandoned movie theater, while their adversary, the demon Tak, occupies and terrorizes the rest of the town.

Example 2: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

In its first few seasons, the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) also adopts this approach, alternating between the (relatively) safe refuge of Sunnydale High School’s library and the Hellmouth below or between the library and the factory (and, later, the mansion) that Angel, Spike, and Drusilla occupy.

Example 3 The Island of Dr. Moreau

In The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), such a place of safety exists in the scientific laboratory of the vivisectionist. Without, the jungle is the domain of the scientist’s Beast Folk.

Example 3: The Thing

Likewise, in The Thing (1951), an arctic outpost is the place of sanctuary. Outside, an alien roams the frozen wastelands, attacking sled dogs.

Of course, these sanctuaries provide refuge for only so long; and, sooner or later, they are likely to be invaded, infiltrated, or attacked.

Whether a story juxtaposes a tranquil and reassuring scene against a violent and disturbing one or alternates between a refuge and the domain of the antagonist, the effects are pretty much the same. A false sense of security is created (to be overturned in the next, horrific scene) or the reader or viewer is constantly reminded that the evil thing, the monster, exists just outside the protective walls of the sanctuary and might attack, infiltrate, or invade the refuge at any moment. This juxtaposition or alternation heightens both the sense of goodness and of evil and of tranquility and of horror. At the same time, it reminds the audience that there is no safe place, after all; evil will find us wherever we hide. The only way to deal with wickedness is to accept its challenge, take arms against it as a community, and destroy or banish it.

Of course, even then, it’s likely to come back some other day. . . with a vengeance.

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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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