Fascinating lists!

Monday, May 31, 2010

Alternate Endings: When One Conclusion Is As Good As Another

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Aristotle condemned the irrelevant, tacked-on endings with which the playwrights of his day sometimes concluded their dramas (Poetics), and, Edgar Allan Poe contended that the end of a story should be implicit in and follow from the narrative’s beginning (“The Philosophy of Composition”), although not in an obvious way. Apparently, some filmmakers disagree, for, recently, alternate endings seem to have become all the rage.

According to the fine folk of Wikipedia (whoever they may be), “alternate ending is a term used (usually in movies) to describe the ending of a story that was planned or debated but ultimately unused in favor of the actual ending. Generally, alternate endings are considered to have no bearing on the canonical narrative” (“Alternate Ending”). (By “canonical,” the anonymous authors presumably mean the film as it was actually released.)

The online encyclopedia article offers a list of twenty eight alternate endings, including those of 1408, Army of Darkness, and I Know What You Did Last Summer.

In 1408, “Mike Enslin dies in the fire he causes. At his burial, his wife is approached by the hotel manager, offering his personal belongings. She refuses [to accept them], and he lets her know that her husband did not die in vain. Back in his vehicle[,] he listens to the tape recorder, and screams in fear as he sees Enslin’s burned[,] deformed body in his back seat for only a moment. The film closes with an apparition of Mike Enslin still in 1408, muttering to himself, and finally exiting the room, hearing his daughters [sic] voice” (“1408 [film]”).

In Army of Darkness, “after Ash drinks the potion that would make him sleep long enough to wake up in his own time, he accidentally drinks too much and wakes up in the future. In the new time[,] it's a post-apocalyptic wasteland of a world and he screams ‘I slept too long!’” (“Army of Darkness”).

In I Know What You Did Last Summer, “Julie receives an invite [sic] to a pool party and read[s] an email that reads ‘I still know” ("I Know What You Did Last Summer [film]").

Those who have seen these films are likely to agree that their actual endings are more satisfying and integral to their stories than these alternate possibilities.

1408 ends with Enslin recovering “in a New York hospital, Lily at his bedside. He swears that he saw Katie, but Lily refuses to believe him. After his recovery[,] Enslin moves back in with Lily, beginning work on a new novel about his stay in 1408. While sorting through a box of items from his night in 1408[,] that [sic] Lily wants to discard, Enslin comes across his Mini Cassette recorder. After some difficulty[,] he manages to get the tape to play; it begins with Enslin's dictation of 1408’s appearance, but cuts in with audio from his interaction with the apparition of his daughter. [In shock,] Lily, who is standing by him[,] listening to the audio, drops a box she was holding. . . . The scene ends with Enslin staring at Lily's face” (Wikipedia, “1408 [film]”).

Army of Darkness concludes “with Ash back at the S-Mart store, telling a co-worker all about his adventure back in time, and how he could have been king. After this, a deadite starts wreaking havoc on the store (it is implied that he again raised the dead by saying the wrong words needed to travel through time), and Ash slays the creature. The film ends with Ash. . . saying, ‘Sure I could have been King, but in my own way, I am a king.’ He then says out loud, while kissing a female customer, ‘Hail to the King, baby!’” (Wikipedia, “Army of Darkness”).

In I Know What You Did Last Summer, Julie “receives a letter resembling the one she had got[ten] from Ben, but it. . . contains [only] a pool party invitation. Julie returns to the bathroom, which has filled with steam. On the shower door, ‘I STILL KNOW’ is written. Ben jumps through the shower door, attacking her” (Wikipedia, “I Know What You Did Last Summer [film]”).

The Wikipedia articles concerning the alternate endings of two of these movies explain why they were dropped and the movies’ existing endings were substituted. The reactions of test audiences at screenings of the movies before their public release did not favor the original (that is, the “alternate”) endings or studio executives ordered that a different ending be filmed:

“Director Mikael Håfström has stated that the ending for 1408 was reshot [sic] because test audiences felt that the original ending was too much of a ‘downer’”, [sic] and “when test audiences didn’t approve of [Sam] Raimi's original ending [to Army of Darkness], he cut the film down to the international cut that now exists on DVD. When it was again rejected by Universal, Raimi was forced to edit it again to the U.S. [sic] theatrical version.” (No explanation as to why the original ending to I Know What You Did Last Summer is provided by the authors of its Wikipedia article.)

In short stories and novels, which are usually produced by a lone author or, occasionally, a pair of collaborators, no advance audience reacts to the narratives’ endings before the stories or novels are published. The emphasis is upon the artwork, not the public’s reaction to it. In other words, the artists determine how and why their work should end the way that it does, and Aristotle and Poe, among others, provide the guidance that most such writers follow in ending their stories: the conclusion must both be logical and organic, as it were, flowing from the narrative’s structure, from the very beginning, and not tacked on for convenience’s sake or, these critics probably would have contended, their audience’s, readers’, or producers’ approval. Whose take is wiser, those of Aristotle and Poe or the Hollywood film industry’s? The filmmakers or their audiences? Or is the very question itself a false dilemma? Could the filmmakers be right in some cases and the test audiences’ reactions be correct in others? It’s impossible to say for certain, but devising several possible alternate endings may be useful as a tool for sustaining situational irony until the very end of a story, although, in the end, a writer should be more concerned with his or her art than with pleasing the reader (or the audience).

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Religious Fundamentalism Is Not the Answer in "The Vanishing"

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

In a previous post, I addressed Bentley Little’s thematic use of aberrant sexuality in The Vanishing, observing that he employs it in this novel for the same purpose as he does in his others: it expresses and represents the degenerate nature of the men and women who engage in it. I concluded that, in Little’s fiction, sexual debauchery suggests that men and women, separated not only from God and nature, but also from any sense of moral decency or even decorum, are haunted, or even possessed, by an idolatrous sensuality and a demonic sexual deviance and that, regardless of the shapes and appearances of the monsters in Little’s novels, sexual perversion--or, rather, what it symbolizes--the moral degeneracy that issues from the godlessness and idolatry of modern, secular society--is the true demon about which he writes, the nature of the human beast, unclothed by cultural pretenses and rhetorical rationalizations.

However, Little has no evangelical mission. He seeks not to proselytize. He wishes to make no converts to traditional Christian faith, in either its Roman Catholic or its Protestant versions. Indeed, Little appears to have serious misgivings about Christian faith as it is interpreted and practiced by both Roman Catholics and Protestants. His omniscient narrator makes this clear in such comments as these:

. . . “Reverend Charles asked about you the other day.”

“Really?” he said noncommittally.

“He knows you’re a writer and thought you might help us out with our letter-writing campaign. The school board refused to allow science teachers in the district to talk about creationism or intelligent design. We’re trying to get that changed.”

“Mom. . .”

“Don’t worry. I told him you wouldn’t be interested.”

“Yeah, you’re right. They should be teaching religion at school and leave the controversial stuff like science for the parents to teach their kids at home.”

“Don’t you start blasphemin’ with me.”

. . . His mom had always been religious, but she’d never been nutty. He wasn’t sure that was still true. . . .

. . . Disbelief in evolution was no longer just a fringe viewpoint. An antiintellectual [sic], anti-science attitude no seemed to hold sway over vast sections of the country (17-18).

After characterizing Christians as irrational, if not insane, Little suggests that their holy book is unsatisfactory as a guide to anthropology, using myths to explain away, rather than to explain, mysteries of nature:

It was a graveyard unlike any they had ever seen, not least for the fact that the graves had been big enough to accommodate giants. . . . and footprints led away from the pit through the muddy soil, monstrous footprints that were not only four times the size of an ordinary man’s but resembled those of neither animal nor human.

. . . And how had the one giant come back to life and emerged from the grave?

“There were giants in the earth in those days,” Morgan James said, quoting the Bible as if that explained everything.

Of course, it explained nothing . . . (129).

Next, the author implies that Christians are stubborn and prefer to attribute impossibilities to God rather than to accept the possibility that bizarre phenomena may contradict their faith in the order and intelligibility of the universe and the rule of an omnipotent and omniscient creator, behavior that an agnostic character sees as fanatical:

. . . in this new land they were encountering phenomena no civilized man had ever seen. But the religious among them took this to mean that God Himself was intervening on their journey, performing miracles, scourging the land of evil, and for the rest of their trip they had prayed and proselytized to the point where [sic] Alf Thomas raised his hands to the sky and yelled, “God, if you’re up there, strike these” men “mute so I don’t have to listen to their. . . voices any more.! Do. . . it. . . right. . . now!” When nothing happened, he turned to Emily Smith and her group of fanatics and said, “See? Either God is dead or He doesn’t exist. Now shut the hell up!”

But of course they didn’t (131).

Many other passages depict Christians in an unfavorable light, such as this one, that implies believers’ trust is both absurd and inadvisable, if not, indeed potentially fatal:

So they parted ways after happening upon the well-worn tracks of the Mormon Trail and connecting with another wagon train a few miles up the route. The religious contingent headed west on the California Trail, claiming God would protect them from the winter, though they had been warned by fellow seekers that Donner Pass was inaccessible. The remainder headed northwest along the Oregon Trail. . . (134).
If aberrant sex marks humanity as morally degenerate, their faith (or fundamentalism, mistaken for faith), as Little characterizes it (as irrational, unscientific, fanatical, absurd, and potentially fatal--the Donner party was caught in a blizzard and, when some died of exposure or starvation, the others cannibalized them), depicts them as hopelessly dependent upon a vain and foolish tradition that, far from having any survival value, is not only fantastic and incredible but is also likely to get them killed.

What answer, if any, to the problem of the human predicament, as involving moral degenerates whose faith is absurd and impotent, does Little’s fiction suggest? I’ll save the answer to this question for my next post concerning The Vanishing.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

House of Horrors

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Horror stories are like houses. In constructing a domicile, builders lay a foundation and, then, according to the blueprints designed by the architect, with the needs and desires of its future residents in mind, the construction crew builds the residence. After the family moves into the house, they must furnish it and maintain it, repairing fixtures and appliances, repainting the interior and the exterior, landscaping the yard. They may also improve the property, adding rooms or, perhaps, a backyard swimming pool or tennis court.

Some houses--bungalows, perhaps--are short stories; others, such as mansions, are novels. In any case, particular rooms are provided for specific needs and purposes: a living room for socializing, a dining room for enjoying meals, a kitchen for preparing the meals to be enjoyed, bedrooms for sleeping, one or more bathrooms for bathing, an attic for storage, and so forth. The narrative equivalent to the room is the scene, just as its counterpart to the yard is the setting. The family, of course, corresponds to the narrative’s characters. As any television sitcom shows, conflicts arise from the interactions of the family members. Consider the horror stories which take place in a house (or, for that matter, a castle or a hotel): The Exorcist, The Amityville Horror, The Haunting of Hill House, The Castle of Otranto.

Of course, a community is an extension of a family, in which caser the rooms, as it were, of the house, are not chambers but other buildings: the library, stores, the police station, the fire station, the hospital, the high school or college campus, the dentist’s office, the community swimming pool, the movie theater. The characters are the townspeople, and the setting is the landscape both in and around the town. As Stephen King’s novels show, a story becomes more complicated and more sophisticated when it takes a village to tell a story. Most horror writers have written one or more short stories or novels set in small towns or even big cities. Rather than the personal or the familial, such stories typically deal with the social aspects of human existence.

If houses and families can be expanded into villages and communities, small towns and their residents can be extended into nations and nationalities or, for that matter, into the entire world and its global community, the human race. Think Stephen King’s The Stand, Robert McCammon’s Swan’s Song, or H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. The concerns of such narratives expand accordingly: instead of rooms, cities; instead of yards or landscapes, nations; instead of a family, humanity itself. The theme of such stories is typically scientific (whether in the biological or sociological sense), for these narratives are often about the survival of the species itself.

Whether it is housed in a single-family residence, a small town, a nation, or the planet itself, horror is primarily a family affair. It’s just that the concept of family changes at each level, from mom, dad, and the kids to the townspeople to one’s fellow citizens to humanity itself. At every level, problems arise, helping writers to define and to redefine what it means to be a human being living in a world of menaces and malevolence.

Hank Ketchum never had it so good.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

. . . And So It Begins. . . .

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Elsewhere, I have analyzed the basic plot that is common to horror fiction in general. One of the elements of such a plot is the introduction, following an initial period of relative calm and normalcy, of a bizarre incident which is followed, in turn, by a series of other strange occurrences.

Most of the time, writers of horror fiction, accomplished or aspiring, have little trouble imagining such incidents, and the news supplies a wealth of possibilities when one’s imagination does fail. However, as the proverb suggests, “all is grist for the mill,” and no source of ideas for such incidents should be overlooked. One such source, for me (and, I daresay, many others) are the drawings, paintings, and photographs that are readily accessible in any Internet image browser, such as AOL, Google, Yahoo!, or Flickr.

Such browsers are easy to use, of course: simply type a specific word or group of words into the browser’s “search” window and press the SEARCH button on the computer screen or press your keyboard’s Enter key. A whole page of thumbnail images will appear, from which a specific one may be selected with the click of a mouse and enlarged, once it appears, by another click of the mouse atop the picture.

A list or keywords (“bizarre,” “eerie,” “horror,” “scary,” “strange,” “weird,” for example), will solicit hundreds of such images. More than one is likely to be appropriate as a basis for the bizarre incident that will kick off your narrative, and several may be chosen to continue the series of bizarre events that follow it. Here are a few that I came across as I prepared this post:

  • A bloody, open mouth screams from within the palm of a hand.
  • A streetlamp illuminates the side of a massive building, but leaves dark everything without the circle of its light.
  • A set of butcher’s knives hangs from a magnetic wall strip; one of the knives is missing from the lineup.
  • A close-up shot of a toy soldier’s face, looking eerily inhuman.
  • The silhouette of a young girl pressing her face and arm to a foggy window; in one hand, she holds a meat cleaver.
  • A dark tornado approaching across a grassy plain.
  • A highway disappearing into a thick white fog as it curves round the edge of a thick forest.

Any (or none) of these images may initiate a story’s horror, depending upon the story’s needs and the writer’s mood.

Of course, after one selects an image or a series of images, he or she must develop a purpose for their use--an explanation, in other words, of their origin, a reason for the images' use in the narrative, and an account (eventually) of how and why they cohere or are related one to the next.

  • The bloody, open mouth that screams from within the palm of a hand could be the result of a psychotic person’s hallucination.
  • A streetlamp that illuminates the side of a massive building, but leaves dark everything without the circle of its light is a natural enough image to require no explanation of its origin, but what about it occasions the horror of the story and how is it related to successive incidents?
  • A set of butcher’s knives hangs from a magnetic wall strip; one of the knives is missing from the lineup. Do the knives belong to a chef or a serial killer? Which knife is missing, and why? Will the blade be used to carve a chicken, a victim, or a cadaver?
  • A close-up shot of a toy soldier’s face, looking eerily inhuman may not call for a paranormal or a supernatural explanation (although it could), but, again, how and why is this image the springboard of horror in the story to follow?
  • The silhouette of a young girl who presses her face and arm to a foggy window as she holds a meat cleaver may be fairly normal (depending upon the greater context of the narrative), but why does she have the cleaver and what, pray tell, does she intend to do with it? And whose window is she's pressed against, trying, perhaps, to see whether a particular resident is home?
  • A dark tornado’s approach across a grassy plain is, once again, a natural event, but who or what is it approaching, and what happens next?
  • A highway disappearing into a thick white fog as it curves round the edge of a thick forest is not in itself unusual, but what lies around the curve, hidden by the fog, may be both terrible and horrific.

Finally, are any (all) of these seemingly disparate images in some way related? If so, how? If not, what sequence of bizarre incidents does follow, and how are the subsequent events related to the initial one and to one another?

. . . And so the story begins. . . .

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Bentley Little: Aberrant Sex as Symbolic of the Nature of Sin

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Among other things, Bentley Little is known for his ability to create, maintain, and intensify suspense through his narrative and descriptive skills; his inability to end his novels in a satisfactory (that is, satisfying) manner; and his inclusion of aberrant sex in his stories.

I have discussed the first two qualities of Little’s work in previous posts. In this one, I take up the aberrant sex that is a recurring element in his fiction, citing a few examples from one of his more recent novels, The Vanishing (Signet, 2007); parenthetical numbers refer to the pages from which text is summarized or quoted. I also offer my take as to why Little is wont to include such material in his fiction. (Yes, it’s salacious and helps to sell his novels, but there’s more to it than that, I think.)

Little loses no time in describing his novel’s first instance of aberrant sex. Victor Lowry, the ne’er-do-well son of a self-made millionaire, picks up his sometime-girlfriend, Sharline. Although the couple has just had an argument (“they’d parted on bad terms last week after a very public fight”), Sharline seems as content to use Victor’s money as he is to use her body (she lives in an apartment, he in a mansion).

After their date, the narrator confides to the reader, Victor “took Sharline back to her apartment and did her quick and hard on the floor of the living room, finishing in” a fashion that he knows she does not “like.” Victor is more than inconsiderate. He uses women (as Sharline also uses him), and he does so in a contemptuous fashion, without regard to their feelings. When Sharline calls him a “bastard,” he smiles; her anger amuses and delights him, and the narrator declares that “he felt good, happy,” explaining that Victor’s sadistic streak is something of a sexual, if not marital, aid to him: “It helped him get off, doing things to women they didn’t like” (8).

Victor’s sadism makes him an unsympathetic character, so that when, a few pages later, he is murdered by his psychotic father, the reader may not condone the madman’s behavior, but he or she isn’t likely to feel much remorse for Victor, the “bastard” who has used his girlfriend with such indifference a few pages earlier. (Sharline is somewhat unsympathetic, too, for she is using Victor for his money, even as he is using her for sex, but she doesn’t deserve to be treated with the disdain and cruelty with which Victor treats her. He is the bigger culprit, so, when his father dispatches him, the reader is apt to feel that the sadistic son’s dispatch is not all that unfortunate an event.)

In chapter three of the novel, the reader is introduced to Arlene and her husband Stephen, who may or may not be having an affair; if he is, Arlene decides, she may or may not care: “Stephen called a few minutes later, promising to be home by dinnertime, but she knew that ‘dinnertime’ could mean anything between six and nine o’clock. She wondered idly if he was having an affair--then wondered if she cared” (24).

Although Little doesn’t go into detail about Stephen’s extramarital sexual escapades (if there are, indeed, any extramarital sexual escapades into which to go), but the suggestion of infidelity is another allusion to aberrant sexuality. It would be despicable if Stephen is cheating on his wife, but her casual indifference also rankles the reader, suggesting that she doesn’t have much regard for their marriage, for her husband, or for herself, her apathy painting her as a somewhat unsympathetic character. Perhaps she--or both she and her husband--will also be victims of whatever madness and mayhem Little has unleashed upon his characters.

Stephen returns home earlier than Arlene had expected, and, after dinner and a bit of television, he suggests that they “have a golden shower.” Although she offers token resistance to engaging in the act, it is obvious that “golden showers” are a routine part of the aberrant sex lives they share, and “Arlene,” the reader is told, “gave in, as she always did, and she drank water until she had to pee,” thereafter discharging the contents of her bladder over her husband “until he was completely soaked” and sexually excited. After he satisfies her by other means, she seats herself upon him, to “finish him off” with “a few quick, hard thrusts” which cause them to climax “together,” one in their ecstasy as they are in their degeneracy (27).

Their devil-may-care attitudes toward sex and one another are reflected in their son Kirk’s interest in casual, even anonymous, sex, as is seen by his attempt to pick up a woman in a nightclub rather than to stay for dinner at his parents’ house, despite the fact that his mother, having just returned from two weeks of vacation in France, has invited him to celebrate her return: “He scanned the bar and then positioned himself next to a tall dark beauty who was either alone, abandoned, or waiting for a friend.” (One almost fails to see the nonchalant way that the narrator includes “abandoned” in the list of possible explanations for the woman’s being by herself, a casualness that underscores the attitude that Kirk himself has toward casual sexual encounters with strangers.)

Unfortunately for the opportunistic Kirk, the woman is awaiting her boyfriend’s return: “Before he could get up the nerve to speak to her. . . her date returned from the bathroom and the two of them wandered off ins search of a table” (29). Had Kirk been able to “get up the nerve” sooner, the narrator suggests, perhaps he would have been able to persuade the “tall dark beauty” to leave with him rather than with her date. Faithfulness between lovers is not any more likely in a Little novel than it is in the actual world of American society, in which half of marriages end in divorce.

Kirk’s mother, far from being disappointed in her son’s decision to skip dinner with his parents, is delighted, because she suspects that he is skipping their dinner engagement in favor of keeping a rendezvous with a new lover:

“You knew your mother was coming home,” his dad said sternly.

“I know, but it’s--”

“Someone new?” his mother asked, barely concealing her delight at the prospect.

“Yeah,” he lied (29).

Kirk’s willingness to lie to his mother suggests, as does his willingness to pick up a woman who may be waiting for her date to return, the dishonesty at the core of his character, just as her participation in aberrant sexual behavior and her “delight” at the prospect that her son is meeting “someone new” may suggest Arlene’s own casual morality.

Carrie Daniels, a social worker, introduced in chapter four of the novel, seeks to obtain medical benefits for Juan, a furry boy whose head and facial features resemble those of a llama enough for the superstitious to attribute his birth to his mother Rosalie’s fornication with beasts. Carrie’s supervisor, Sanchez, informs her that he has heard “secondhand” that, “to get the money to come to America,” Rosalie “worked in a. . . llama show, back in Mexico,” where “she had sex with animals while people watched” and became “pregnant by one” as a result, conceiving her son (37).

Although Rosalie scoffs at the explanation, declaring it “impossible,” she is disturbed by the story, and, when she sees a tabloid’s headline about Holly, a prostitute who gave birth to a “rhino boy,” she and a colleague investigate the story, stumbling upon a murder scene in which they find the dead body of the decapitated “rhino boy” and his mother, causing Carrie to believe “there really was a rhino boy” (49-50) and to wonder whether Rosalie and her son are also in danger from the same killer (51).

In this chapter, Little adds voyeurism, prostitution, and possible bestiality to his list of aberrant sexual behaviors and ties them to poverty and a need for money on the part of unskilled, but (in Rosalie’s case, at least) attractive young women who aspire to better lives.

Almost every chapter of the novel contains either references to, or full-fledged scenes involving, one sort or another of aberrant sex. Chapter five is no exception: a reporter receives a voice message from an oil company CEO who says he is suffering from satyriasis. It’s hard to say whether the executive is bragging or complaining, but the message itself is communicated in vulgar, rather than clinical, terms (56).

Whatever is happening in The Vanishing, the mystery of iniquity, as it were, involves sexual perversions, but these degenerate acts also serve other narrative purposes than simply setting up a mysterious chain of bizarre events. The allusions to sexual aberrations and the scenes that depict the characters involved in aberrant sexual behavior characterize the participants in such acts as unsympathetic, amoral, cruel, and unfaithful, just as such references and scenes depict contemporary American society and capitalism as unprincipled and indifferent to human suffering (indeed, businesses are depicted as seeking to capitalize upon human suffering, as in Rosalie’s and Holly’s cases)

For many modern men and women, sex has become something of a religion, and, in the perverted and degenerate forms that it takes in Little’s novels, The Vanishing included, such sex seems to symbolize the moral degeneracy and the spiritual dissolution out of which, ultimately, such behavior flows. It is a shorthand way of suggesting the sinfulness and impiety of modern humanity. The novel’s narrator suggests as much when he admits, concerning the conduct of one character, “This hadn’t been just a sex thing” (60), and, in reference to another character, explains:

Something was wrong with him. He didn’t know what it was, but he sensed that it was not something that could be cured by a psychiatrist. This was not the result of some childhood trauma or chemical imbalance [i. e., the problem’s etiology is neither environmental nor organic, or genetic]. It went deeper than that. This was something inexplicable and inhuman that had recently manifested itself from God-knew-where. And now was a permanent part of him (65).

As the Catholic Online Encyclopedia observes,

Lust is said to be a capital sin. The reason is obvious. The pleasure which this vice has as its object is at once so attractive and connatural to human nature as to whet keenly a man’s desire, and so lead him into the commission of many other disorders in the pursuit of it. Theologians ordinarily distinguish various forms of lust in so far as it is a consummated external sin, e. g., fornication, adultery, incest, criminal assault, abduction, and sodomy. Each of these has its own specific malice--a fact to borne in mind for purposes of safeguarding the integrity of sacramental confession.

Separated not only from God and nature, but also any sense of moral decency or even decorum, men and women are haunted, or even possessed, by idolatrous sensuality and demonic sexual deviance. Regardless of the shapes and appearances of the monsters in Little’s novels, sexual perversion--or, rather, what it symbolizes--the moral degeneracy that issues from the godlessness and idolatry of modern, secular society--is the true demon about which he writes, the nature of the human beast, unclothed by cultural pretenses and rhetorical rationalizations.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Fly in the Ointment of Being a Ghost in a Machine

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Monsters are degenerate. They represent deterioration or disintegration. As such, they are living object lessons, as it were, examples of what will happen to the rest of us if we pursue their course or “suffer the slings and arrows,” as William Shakespeare might put it, of their “outrageous fortune.” Potentially, we are all Frankenstein’s monster; any of us could be the creature of the Black Lagoon; you and I could both become the next werewolf, vampire, or zombie. Horror fiction is about the could-be versions of ourselves, and, often, these could-be versions are our lesser, degenerate selves.

The authors of horror fiction imply that another’s hubris can cause us to suffer, as arrogant Victor Frankenstein, in seeking to play God, makes his creature suffer. Frankenstein lusts after power and glory (or fame), and, like the novel’s author, Mary Shelley, other writers of horror fiction suggest that our lusts, sexual or otherwise, may bring about our downfall, just as the sexual desire of the creature of the Black Lagoon for Kay Lawrence and the infatuation of King Kong with Ann Darrow lead to these monsters’ downfalls and deaths. If we do not control the animal within, we may become a werewolf; if we parasitize others too freely, whether emotionally, financially, sexually, or otherwise, we may become vampires; if we are too passive and compliant (or indifferent), we may be transformed into zombies by those whom we serve (or, both history and politics show, even by those who supposedly serve us).

Often, monsters expose dangers to society and faults within a nation or a system, but they can also show us the perils of ourselves and others. In addition, horror stories show us that it is humans’ inhumanity to others that frequently creates monsters. Beowulf’s Grendel attacks the Danes because, ostracized by human society, he feels envious of the warriors’ camaraderie and fellowship. Grief-stricken, Grendel’s mother is also motivated by her passion: she seeks vengeance against the Geatish warrior, Beowulf, who killed her son. In the same epic poem, a dragon seeks to avenge the theft of gold that it guards--gold that it has itself stolen from the graves of dead warriors. Such stories suggest what is wrong with us as a group.

However, other monsters, such as Godzilla, the gigantic ants of the movie Them!, and the flora of M. Night Shyamalan’s abysmal film The Happening represent--indeed, embody--the dangers of environmental pollution, whereas such menaces as Frankenstein’s monster, the hybrid human-animal creatures of H. G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, the gigantic plants and animals of Wells’ novel The Food of the Gods (and the movie based upon it), the human fly of David Cronenberg's movie The Fly, and the dinosaurs of Steven Spielberg's movie Jurassic Park (based upon the novel of the same title by Michael Crichton), represent, as do the antagonists of many other movies, the dangers of overreaching scientists who would manipulate and control nature, regardless of the potential risks involved in their experiments. Madmen as monsters are another type of this menace. Such characters appear in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado” and in such films as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (based upon Robert Bloch’s novel of the same title) and Jonathan Demme’s film The Silence of the Lambs (based upon the novel, of the same title, by Thomas Harris). Such movies suggest what is wrong with our behavior as individuals.

Still other monsters, such as the blob (in Irvin Yeaworth's movie The Blob) or the cosmic forces and entities that appear in many of H. P. Lovecraft’s short stories suggest that the threat to humanity is an external force that is beyond our control; the menace comes from outside, infecting us or subjecting us to its will. Such stories imply that, despite our knowledge and our wit, we are but the pawns of fate.

In short, many of the monsters of horror fiction suggest that something is terribly wrong with us as a society or a species, or with our actions as individuals, or with the very cosmos in which we live. Evils, such movies, imply, are social, biological, or existential; they attack (and lay bare) our weaknesses as dualistic creatures whose structure is both physical and spiritual and who necessarily live in societies which are predicated upon and, indeed, result from, both aspects of our nature as ghosts, as it were, in the machines of our own material bodies.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Metaphysics of Horror

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

From a religious point of view, the problem of evil, as philosophers call the idea that a loving, omniscient, omnipotent, and eternal God allows evil and suffering, seems to suggest one of these possibilities:

  • There actually is no God.
  • God is less than he is believed to be (for example, not loving, omniscient or omnipotent).
  • God does not intervene in nature or human affairs.
  • The devil (or chief evil entity) is equally as powerful as God.

Sooner or later, if only implicitly, horror fiction must grapple with this philosophical conundrum.

Dean Koontz wrestles with the problem of evil in The Taking, Stephen King in Desperation.

In the former’s novel, the arrival of Satan and his minions, mistaken for an extraterrestrial invasion of alien spacecraft, occurs when these dark forces seek to usher in Armageddon. The nature of the problem of evil is not directly assessed, although Koontz’s novel suggests that, despite its opposition to God’s goodness, evil does have a divine purpose, unintended though that effect may be on the part of the devil. Rather as in the book of Genesis (crossed, perhaps, with the Norse concept of Ragnarok, in which a man and a woman, surviving the destruction of Middle-earth, repopulate the planet at the beginning of a new age), a remnant of humanity is preserved against the wholesale destruction that ensues the hellish invasion. In place of Noah’s ark, the protagonist, having been impregnated by her husband, bears the seed of humanity’s hopes for the future within her womb. The old world dies that a new one may be born.

If Koontz’s novel is informed (by way of Norse mythology) by the Genesis account of the flood and the survival of Noah and his family (and two of every other species on the planet), King’s story seems to take, as its foundation, the Old Testament story of Job.

In King’s novel, God has summoned protagonist David Carver and several others to stop the demon Tak, who has recently escaped from a caved-in mine. In the process, David loses his entire family and concludes that “God is cruel.” However, another character, writer John Marinville, gives the teenager a note that he, Marinville, found while he was in the demon’s lair, a get-out-of-school-early pass that David had left nailed to a tree in his backyard, hundreds of miles away, before he and his family undertook the vacation that ended in Desperation. On the note is a message that wasn’t on the note originally, a message that, presumably, is from God himself: “God is love.” To effect the greater good, love must, at times, take a harsh and unbending stand toward evil, even at the cost of great sacrifice. David is too young to know the ways of God, but, King suggests, like longsuffering Job, the protagonist must trust in the goodness of God and take the deity at his word that he is a God of love who intervenes in human affairs for purposes which are inscrutable to human beings but are just, nevertheless, and, on some greater scale, probably merciful as well.

Koontz, a Roman Catholic, and King, who grew up in the Protestant tradition but claims to subscribe to no “traditional” religious faith and to have a non-traditional idea of God, both offer a view of the problem of suffering which is rooted, at least in part, in the Judeo-Christian faith (and, in Koontz’s case, perhaps Norse mythology), as it is expressed, respectively, in the book of Genesis (and the Eddas) and the book of Job. Although neither author presents an original thesis concerning the problem of evil, each draws attention to the issue in an entertaining and inventive fashion. (A recent film, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, also enquires as to the basis of evil and suffering, leaving the answer open.)

The mystery of iniquity is perhaps unsolvable, but it clearly still retains a powerful interest upon the imaginations of writers and readers today, just as it has for several millennia now.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

from Formula Fiction?: An Anatomy of American Science Fiction, 1930-1940

Today’s post carries no byline because it’s really a summary of observations by Frank Cioffi, author of Formula Fiction?: An Anatomy of American Science Fiction, 1930-1940 (Greenwood Press, Westport, CT, 1982).

What Cioffi notes concerning science fiction also works for horror fiction and, as he points out, for most other genres of popular literature as well.

“Status quo” science fiction. . . . opens with a conventional picture of social reality. . . . This reality is disrupted by some anomaly or change--invasion, invention, or atmospheric disturbance, for example--and most of the story involves combating or otherwise dealing with this disruption. At the story’s conclusion, the initial reality (the status quo) reasserts itself (ix).

Status quo science fiction served to affirm existent reality in much the same way that other popular genres of the troubled 1930s affirmed values such as family, the love ethic, manly heroism, the American Way, and the like (ix).

The “subversive” formula. . . [is] a variety of SF that comes directly out of the status quo formula and, in fact, closely resembles it. . . . In the subversive formula, the anomaly is not expelled, but somehow incorporated into society; in short, society is subverted by it (ix.)

Rather than demonstrating how society snaps back to normal after any disruption, subversive science fiction depicts how society adapts to and incorporates the anomalous. . . . The anomaly is making an impact on the social structure depicted: altering it, subverting it, destroying it (x).

The “other world” formula. . . Displays no explicit, representational society: conventional society is bypassed altogether in this formula, though it is of course the implied referent for the fictive world. . . . A story of the other world type might show a number of slightly confusing pictures of an entirely alien culture culminating in a revelatory scene that suggests some connection to a conventional or familiar reality, thereby shaping the protagonist’s (and reader’s) perception of the foregoing events. This formula can also be seen as a variant on the status quo or subversive type which starts from an alternative social reality. The initial “status quo” of this formula is some entirely projected fantastic world, often a version of contemporary social reality or a future evolution of it. . . . This variety emphasizes perfection. How should values be formed in the absence of a familiar cultural context? How would our world’s values look to complete outsiders? (x).

The typology of 1930s SF may be used to identify most subsequent examples of the genre (xi).

Instead of depicting the expulsion of the anomaly, the subversive story shows society adapting (or crumbling) in response to it (12).

This anomaly’s plausibility elevates science fiction out of fantasy, and into a realm where it must be taken seriously. The way the anomaly first appears and how characters react to it determine its plausibility. The critic, however, need not make explicit connections between the story’s anomaly and actual current events (13).

The first, most obvious level of analysis concerns acceptance of the anomaly by characters within the story: is the anomaly valuable or repulsive, good or bad, useful or destructive?. . . . In the third formula. . . the anomaly’s general utility vis-à-vis experiential reality has to be inferred from the author’s stance [rather than from “the interaction between the real world and the anomaly,” because “the other world structure radically departs. . . from any specific(or even slightly veiled) depiction of the author’s social/experiential milieu; its terms and events are almost entirely removed from the identifiably naturalistic” (12)] (15).

After the initial reaction of experiential reality to the anomaly is discerned--either in the story itself or through the author’s stance--the reader distances him/herself (with the author) one more degree from the story, and determines whether that reaction is right or wrong. . . . Many SF stories use dramatic irony to show things about society and groups that these societies or groups themselves cannot see but which are manifestly clear to the reader (15).

A banal plot can. . . be given weight--or publish ability--by injection of terms and situations ordinarily associated with serious, important matters (17).

Where the scientific terms gravitate toward encompassing all society and suggest a typicality or repeatability of situation, fantasy terms would suggest an individuality or singularity, and would thrust the story into am entirely new realm--that of the supernatural (17).

This ur-text. . . is of the status quo variety (17).

The general methodology brought to bear on all SF formulas will essentially be the same archaeological procedure. . . : uncovering component parts (anomaly, reality, authorial stance) and looking for relationships among them that suggest meaning (17).

The “classic detective story” (as defined by John G. Cawelti) takes a similar structure [to that of the status quo formula story]. Into a fairly conventional and familiar world a crime intrudes, and by the story’s conclusion, the crime is solved, and the integrity of society is reinforced (40).

It even more closely resembles the “fantastic journey” variety of adventure story: the protagonist of a central group of characters journeys into the unknown or the forbidden but safely returns to the comforting, familiar world by the end of the story. Horror stories often exhibit a similar structure. The horror element is introduced into a conventional world (or sometimes arises through placement of conventional types in a horror setting such as a haunted house) and causes excitement, chills, and thrills; but finally the real world reasserts itself and order reigns (41).

An ur-text. . . is formed by looking for conventional plots, heroes, conflicts, and anomalies which appear in large numbers of stories but only rarely appear all at once in any one tale. The ur-text, then, is a composite picture of the most oft-repeated and conventional features of a formula. . . . The ur-text . . . is entirely conventional, containing more clichés than a writer would ever be able to sell in one story. Conversely, no story would be able to sell without at least a good portion of these ur-text features (42).

Things are uneventful. . . . People go about their business in a routine way. . . . There is a real stasis. . . and against this (often only implied) background of static reality, various characters appear who seem to be restive, driven, or obsessive--or who are sometimes simply the pawns of chance--on whom the action will focus. More often than not, the main character will e a “hero-type” of the kind usually associated with adolescent literature. Successful in many phases of endeavor, he is young, brilliant (often in scientific work), unmarried. Seldom. . . is this main character a woman. Seldom is the hero either stupid or very poor. . . . Wealth and some social status are usually accessible to him. . . because these accoutrements increase possibility, and the early part of the story must brim with the possible, the potential adventure. . . . And the more conventional the first part is, the greater the shock of anomaly (42).

Onto this comfortable familiarity disruption descends. This disruption can take many forms: a breakthrough occurs in the laboratory; a freakish discovery is made by a scientific expedition; contact is established with a faraway planet. In the early 30s stories, the disruption often results from happenstance: a meteor falls; a letter or telegram arrives. . . . The familiar world of the first part crumbles almost entirely at this stage. The story focuses instead on the anomalous circumstances--the civilization found under the sea, the dangers of another planet, or the like. . . . The change can be effected in many different ways; but generally, the more severe the dislocation, the more dramatic the struggle against it, and the more heroic the act that is needed to overcome it (43).

The struggle between the agent of the known reality and the anomaly can take many forms. Ordinarily, two main conflicts operate in the status quo story. First, the values, ethics, or morals embodied by the agent of reality (usually the hero) are suddenly thrust into a world in which they no longer matter. A new morality, therefore, is at least implied--particularly since survival usually ranks of paramount importance--and it always worked against the known, accepted, fairly conventional values the hero embodies. He must do any number of things to save himself--fill, bribe, appear nude before or sleep beside women he does not know. Such actions flout the code and rules he has always lived by, but are accepted actions when he finds himself among aliens, immersed in the bizarre. A second moral conflict involves the alien force’s actions. They know no ethical restrictions or guidelines o at least they don’t obey ours (43).

All sorts of taboos, such as unfettered sexuality, polygamy, homosexuality, sadomasochism, incest, bestiality, cannibalism, human sacrifice, torture, and genocide, can be carried on by agents of the anomaly. Readers could devour such fare with no sense of guilt or shame because the underlying message is always the reassuring one that this behavior is wrong, the product of creatures or cultures entirely removed from the human realm. The reader could be comfortable knowing not only that such actions are being condemned, but that they are the ones that the agents of the familiar world actively works to defeat (44).

The classic response to this anomaly is expulsion. Accomplished by a variety of means, the danger is averted, and the familiar world reestablishes itself at the story’s conclusion. The scientific method often establishes the real hero. . . . Conventional values work to actively oust or abandon the anomaly: pertinacity, self-awareness, love, loyalty, patriotism. Usually, opposition to the anomaly is deliberate. . . . And this expulsion of the anomaly is usually presented as the correct response, too. The themes that such stories center on--invasion, evil aliens, awful biologioes, destructive technologies--generally threaten society. The reassertion of “reality” at the story’s conclusion-no matter how it is effected--is accepted as essentially the best resolution to what was potentially an enormously threatening chain of events. In short, the status quo stories usually have a happy ending (44).

There are a number of ways the status quo formula avoids being a simple reenactment of one well-worn, conventional plotline. Any established plot formula. . . always operates against the background of what could conceivably be. That is, no fulfillment of the formula or fulfillment of a contrary formula is--in the better stories--always threatened or imminent. In the status quo SF story, for example, the anomaly introduced could come very close to wreaking havoc; or reality could be so grossly altered that it would no longer be recognizable (45).

Status quo stores can bypass a tedious conventionality through their depiction of social taboos (46).

Another artful tack the writer of the status quo SF story can take involves creating a tension between the attractiveness of the SF anomaly and the anomaly’s potential for evil or destructiveness. A writer can spark the reader’s enthusiasm for and appreciation of an anomaly. It can seem like a perfectly good idea, a reasonable experiment, say, with intelligently planned and practical ends. Yet a small misgiving that may appear early on magnifies as the experiment and the story move toward their conclusions. Nat Schachner’s “The 100th Generation” (AS, May 1934) follows such a pattern. It concerns the eugenics experiments of a millionaire scientist, Bayley Spears, and his friend Radburn Phelps (the narrator). Spears outlines his experiment: using the sperm and ova of famous people, he plans to produce a super race. . . . [Phelps] becomes caught up in the millionaire’s enthusiasm and earnestness--and indeed the reader is caught up, too. . . . When Phelps finally does voice his objections, they seem after-the-fact, possibly even petty: he says the creatures will not have responded to environmental influences, and will be too inbred. He then distances himself from the experiment altogether, and lets Spears go to a remote island with the embryos (47-48).

The tensions between the possibility of carrying out such an experiment--compressing three thousand years into twenty--and the experimental technique’s unforeseen ramifications resolves itself when Spears sends Phelps a telegram requesting that the remote island be immediately blown up. The experiment apparently ended in failure. Schachner consciously creates an interesting tension: when Phelps lands on the island, the first creature he sees is a beautiful woman, seemingly the ideal result of eugenic experimentation. Why blow up the island?. . . . She [Una] proves, however, to be the exception to the rule, and the rest of the hundredth generation are so monstrous that they plan to vivisect the landing party. Fortunately, this plan fails. Reality reestablishes itself in the form of a romance that springs up between Phelps’s son and Una. Throughout, Schachner skillfully divides the reader’s feeling between an enthusiasm for the experiment--reified fully in the person of Una--and fear of its terrifying failure (48).

[Another story that uses this same technique is Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park.]

The attractiveness-repulsiveness dichotomy in status quo SF formulas ultimately became so central that its writers shaped the status quo story into other versions of itself. Some stories show the anomaly as entirely positive, so much so that reality (flawed as it is) cannot accept it. This pattern I called the inverted status quo. Another version, the transplanted type status quo formula, begins with an anomalous situation (such as a space flight to Andromeda) into which an even more anomalous agent intrudes (a “black hole” appears in space, for example). As the anomaly becomes more and more attractive, the desire to expel it becomes weaker: instead of chronicling the machinations of expulsion, the latter, more complex and more sophisticated status quo formulas question the necessity of such expulsion, and examine the underlying instincts and motivations for the reader’s attraction to this anomalous element (48).

[Alien, It! The Terror from Beyond Space and The Thing both use “the transplanted type status quo formula” as well.]

And this second anomaly forms the focus of the action and excitement in the transplanted status quo tale (57).

The transplanted status quo tale usually opens with a picture of the transplanted reality. The opening phase of the story is either characterized by restiveness--the crew I anxious to dock, say, or to find excitement--or by a prevailing indolence. In both instances a sense of something about to happen pervades the opening sequences. Often a slightly distracting minor incident whets the reader’s appetite for excitement. A power failure almost occurs on board the spaceship, or one of the crew members falls ill (57).

An alternative pattern starts with the depiction of the anomaly or alien that the transplanted reality will no doubt encounter, but it, too, is in either a passive or a dormant state. A. E. Van Vogt’s “opening line to “Black Destroyer” (ASF, July 1939) is an excellent example of alien dormancy: “On and on Coeurl prowled!” This is a state from which adventure will be generated, an opening that promises action and conflict. The conflict usually comes gradually rather than all at once. The anomaly is either encountered by the agents of a near-recognizable reality, or these familiar types actively seek out the anomaly (58).

The anomaly itself is usually some kind of alien life form whose destructiveness and evil are gradually revealed to the crew (and to the reader) as the story unfolds. Occasionally, the life form is not overtly vile, but insidiously evil. Such a situation prolongs the reader’s tension over what portion of the anomalous situation is usual and what is threatening. Yet this variation does not really change the pattern of action. As the story moves to a climax, and the true nature of the anomaly is revealed, the interaction between it and the reality agents degenerates into some fairly conventional action sequence--fight, chase, showdown, and the like: most SF stories generally have more intriguing openings than endings (58-59).

In the better transplanted status quo tale, the imagery used throughout the conflict usually suggests some easily identifiable earth-bound concern--hunger, sexuality, or work, for example--and it is finally that image pattern that suggests the meaning of the story (59).

At the story’s end, order is restored, the alien or evil anomaly is thrust out, and the transplanted reality survives. . . . The Enterprise of “Star Trek” [sic] continues to “explore new world, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before”--week after week (59).

[In the transplanted reality formula] the action and characters are isolated throughout from the rest of civilization. Such a feature is apparent in sea stories, air stories, Gothic tales (especially those set in castles), and many detective stories (59).

The popular form closest to the transplanted SF tale is the western (59-60).

The transplanted status quo eventually evolved into the story of the alternative world, in which the focus was not so much on earth values, or earth-like personalities but on the very strange. The transplanted story is evidence of how SF writers were attempting to transcend their popular culture antecedents and find their own set of conventions and situation, ones that were not entirely analgous to those found in other forms (67).

Friday, May 14, 2010

from The Dark Descent

Today’s post carries no byline because it’s really a summary of observations by David G. Hartwell, editor of The Dark Descent (Tor, NY, 1987), which he makes in his introduction to the anthology of creepy short stories by such authors as Stephen King, John Collier, M. R. James, H. P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, Harlan Ellison, Nathaniel Hawthorne, J. Sheridan LeFanu, Ray Bradbury, Fritz Leiber, Robert Bloch, Charles L. Grant, Thomas M. Disch, Theodore Sturgeon, Clive Barker, Edgar Allan Poe, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, William Faulkner, D. H. Lawrence, Tanith Lee, Flanner O’Connor, Ramsey Campbell, Henry James, Gene Wolfe, Charles Dickens, Joyce Carol Oates, Ambrose Bierce, Edith Wharton, Algernon Blackwood, Philip K. Dick, and other names worth the dropping, to wit:

[Horror stories] clustered around the principle of a real or fake intrusion of the supernatural into the natural world, an intrusion which arouses fear (4-5).

It is Lovecraft’s essay that provides the keystone upon which any architecture of horror must be built: atmosphere. . . . What this means is that you can experience true horror in, potentially, any work of fiction, be it a western, a contemporary gothic, science fiction, [or] mystery. . . . as long as the atmosphere follows. This means that horror is free of the supernatural (5).

Hartwell includes a quotation of David Aylward:

To them [those who don’t read horror] it is a kind of pornography, inducing horripilation instead of erection. And the reader who appears to relish such sensations--why, he’s an emotional masochist. . . (Revenge of the Past, as quoted in The Dark Descent, 5-6).
Hartwell resumes his own voice, arguing his ideas on his topic:

[Edmund Wilson] sees. . . literature as evolving in a linear fashion into fantasies of the psyche removed entirely from supernatural trappings. Any audience interested in these trappings is regressive. He sees no value to a modern reader in obsolete fiction (7).

As horror has evolved in this century, it has grown significantly in the areas of “the morbidities of the psyche” and fantasies of “a world in which, prosaic though it is, we can find no firm foothold on reality (7).
Hartwell includes a quotation of Jean-Paul Sartre:

In order to achieve the fantastic, it is neither necessary nor sufficient to portray extraordinary things. . . . Either it [the fantastic] does not exist at all, or else it extends throughout the universe.. . (The Fantastic Considered as a Language, as quoted in The Dark Descent, 7-8).
Hartwell resumes his own voice, arguing his ideas on his topic:

Contemporary horror occurs in three streams. . .: 1. moral allegorical [,] 2. psychological metaphor [, and] 3. fantastic. These modes are not mutually exclusive, but usually a matter of emphasis (8).

[Moral allegories] are characteristically supernatural fiction, most usually about the intrusion of evil into consensus reality. . . . These arte the stories of children possessed by demons, of haunting by evil ghosts from the past. . . stories of bad places (where evil persists from past times), of witchcraft and satanism. . . . They are often written by lapsed Christians, who have lost their firm belief in good but still have a discomforting belief in evil. Stories in this stream imply or state the Manichean universe (8).

In speaking of stories and novels in this first stream, we are speaking of the most popular form of horror fiction today, the commercial bestseller lineage of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, and a majority of the works of Stephen King. . . . This stream is the center of category horror publishing (8-9).

The second group of horror stories, stories of aberrant human psychology embodied metaphorically, may be either purely supernatural, such as Dracula, or purely psychological, such as Robert Bloch’s Psycho. What characterizes them as a group is the monster at the center. . .--an overtly abnormal human or creature, from whose acts and on account of whose being the horror arises (9).

Stories of the third stream have at their center ambiguity as to the nature of reality, and it is this very ambiguity that generates the horrific effects. Often this is an overtly supernatural (or certainly abnormal) occurrence, but we know of it only by
allusion. Often, essential elements are left undescribed so that, for instance, we do not know whether there was really a ghost or not. But the difference is not merely supernatural versus psychological explanation: third stream stories lack any explanation that makes sense in everyday reality--we don’t know, and that doubt disturbs us, horrifies us. This is the fiction to which Sartre’s analysis alludes, the fantastic. At its extreme form, from Kafka to the present, it blends indistinguishably with magic realism, the surreal, the absurd, all the fictions that confront reality through paradoxical distance. It is the fiction of radical doubt. . . . In the contemporary field it is a major current (10).

Third stream stories tend to cross all category lines but usually they do not use the conventional supernatural as a distancing device (10).

At the end of a horror story, the reader is left with a new perception of the nature of reality. In the moral allegory strain, the point seems to be that this is what reality was and has been all along (i.. e., literally a world in which supernatural forces are at work) only you couldn’t or wouldn’t recognize it. Psychological metaphor stories basically use the intrusion of abnormality to release repressed or unarticulated psychological states. In her book, Powers of Horror, critic Julia Kristeva says that horror deals with material just on the edge of repression but not entirely repressed and inaccessible. Stories from our second stream use the heightening effect of the monstrously abnormal to achieve this release. Third stream stories maintain the pretense of everyday reality only to annihilate it, leaving us with another world entirely, one in which we are disturbingly imprisoned. It is in perceiving the changed reality and its nature that the pleasure and the illumination of third stream stories lies. . . . The mass horror audience is not much taken with third stream stories. . .
Because they modify the emotional jolt (10-11).
Hartwell includes a quotation of George Stade, which originally appeared in The New York Times (October 27, 1985):

Although the manifest images of horror fiction are legion, their latent meanings are few.
He also offers a quotation of Stephen King:
I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out (Danse Macabre).

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Parenthetical Explanation

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

In a previous post, I discussed The Others as an example of a well-made movie whose twist (some might add, “twisted”) ending depends upon situational irony, which occurs when a situation sets up an expectation as to its resolution that is met in some other way than the audience has been led to believe--a bait-and-switch tactic of sorts, one might say. This film sets up not one, but three, possible explanations for the bizarre events that occur in an island mansion: the house is haunted, the protagonist is losing her mind, her servants are conspiring against her, perhaps to wrest her home away from her and her children. However, although it fulfills all of these expectations, the film resolves them in an unanticipated manner: Grace is insane, but she is also a ghost who is in purgatory as a result of having smothered her children, facts of which her servants hope to make her aware when they judge the time to be right.

Stories are not usually told in a straightforward fashion. Instead, the chronology of events typically is shuffled, so to speak, reordered so as to best capitalize on the drama inherent in and among them. Many stories, for example, begin in media res, or “in the middle of things,” relying upon flashbacks to fill in the details of the plot as the story progresses. A story that develops several alternative--or apparently alternative--storylines, the better to mislead the reader is even more difficult to plot than stories that don’t depend upon situational irony for their effect. Bizarre incidents are exciting, but they’re not ultimately satisfying unless they are explained or, at least, explicable. No one likes a tacked-on ending, or deus ex machina, and a story that fails to explain itself is equally unsatisfying.

It is easy, when a writer is telling a complicated story, such as The Others, or an unusually long story, such as most Stephen King novels, to overlook an explanation of this incident or that, frustrating the reader and decreasing the verisimilitude of one’s narrative. That’s where the technique of what I call parenthetical exposition can pay big dividends during the plotting process. The idea’s as simple as it is effective: as you write a synopsis of tour story’s planned action, include, at appropriate points, parenthetical explanations of why a particular bizarre and mysterious incident or set of circumstances occurs. Reserve the parentheses for this purpose.

Although you probably won’t want to explain the cause of the incidents or circumstances at the time that you describe them, as you write the story, you will have devised the reasons, motives, or foundations of the incidents or circumstances ahead of time and you will not, as a result, leave your readers hanging (and annoyed) as a result. At the appropriate moment, usually somewhere after the middle of the story, you can reveal the cause of these incidents or circumstances as appropriate opportunities to do so present themselves. The protagonist, for example, may discover the origin or the nature of the monstrous antagonist or the secrets related to the haunting of a house or other location; the protagonist may discuss with other characters a chain of events, thereby gaining insight as to the cause of these events; an external event or circumstance may enlighten the character as to the true nature of the threat he or she faces. In any case, you will have explained the reason, motive, or cause of each situation or incident when you plotted the story, explaining it in parentheses following your description of the phenomenon.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Something's Wrong!

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Something’s wrong with. . . .

Well, just about everything.

We fear that something is not quite right. That something is wide of the mark. That something is improper.

Something’s wrong with the baby!

That could be the tagline for Rosemary’s Baby.

Something’s wrong with the dog!

That could be the tagline for Cujo.

Something’s wrong with the house!

That could be the tagline for The Amityville Horror.

Something could go wrong with virtually anything--or anyone.

Including me. . . . or you.

There’s something wrong with my nurse!

Couldn’t that be the tagline for Misery?

There’s something wrong with my husband!

That could be the tagline for The Shining.

What could go wrong?

Again, almost anything.

The baby could be the spawn of Satan, a true devil’s child. The dog could have rabies. The house could be haunted. The nurse and, for that matter, one’s husband could be psychotic and violent, even murderous. Whatever could go wrong might go wrong.

Horror stories are often about things (and people) that go wrong. They suffer a mechanical, an electrical, or a nervous breakdown. They go awry or insane. They fly off the handle, hit the roof, lose it, flip their lids, lose their heads.

The things that go wrong or, sometimes, the things that make other things go wrong, are the monsters or their human equivalents, most of which are symbolic of other, actual dangers: demons (weaknesses and appetites), ghosts (past traumas or guilt or fears that both haunt and drive the emotions of the haunted), giants (seemingly insurmountable, irresistible, or invincible situations), ogres (natural catastrophes or technological terrors), vampires (depression or sexual lust or perversions), werewolves (the animal within), witches (women in league with forces beyond human understanding), and zombies (the brain damaged, the psychotic, and the mesmerized). Look up synonyms for some of these terms, and their real-world equivalents will appear. “Haunted,” for example, suggests haunted “troubled,” “preoccupied,” “worried,” “disturbed,” “anxious,” or “obsessed.”

Horror stories are also about what happens after things (and people) go wrong. Such fiction is about survival and recovery. Novels and short stories in this genre are about restoration and rebirth. In seeing what protagonists and other characters do in the face of extreme danger, menaced by natural, paranormal, or supernatural forces as irresistible and as powerful as they are relentless, we readers can learn how to survive and recover. We can learn how to be restored and how to be reborn.

We can also learn the nature of the monster, whether it takes the form of a charismatic man or a beautiful woman, a seemingly innocent child with a shy smile, or a leader who promises things for which we’ve longed all our lives or have clutched to our breasts only in our dreams, and we can avoid the menace or neutralize or kill it.

Of course, we can always say that there is nothing wrong, that everything is all right, that there’s no cause for alarm.

Life gives us that choice; horror fiction often doesn’t.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Dean Koontz, Past and Present

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Before he wrote horror and cross-genre fiction, Dean Koontz wrote science fiction. Arguably, his earlier stuff is better than his current material. In “Undercity,” which appears in the anthology Future City, edited by Roger Elwood (Trident Press, NY, 1973, pp. 81-95), Koontz extrapolates from contemporary cities, such as Las Vegas, Nevada, using its gambling enterprise and its reputation, as “Sin City,” for vice as the basis for his own criminal world of nefarious Mafia-like criminal characters, the narrator, who goes by the alias Lincoln Pliney, included.

The title of his story is not all that original, but, in the 1970s, many were just as mundane, and what counted was the twist to which an author could put to a then-contemporary situation or state of affairs. Koontz’s story successfully establishes and maintains the allegory of a futuristic “undercity” representing the underbelly of the modern criminal world in which members of rime form an “underworld.” In case one of his more obtuse readers misses the extended comparison, Koontz is careful to have his narrator inform the reader that the undercity replaced what had once been the underworld, a loose confederation of criminals in which characters like Pliney were “feared” and “envied.”

Huge subterranean megalopolises of towering structures, undercities are hives of gambling, prostitution, legalized prostitution, dueling, and other vices. Perhaps in an attempt to thwart crime, the government has legalized most such activities. Adultery is no longer stigmatized, and hired killers need no longer apply, for dueling provides a legal means of settling one’s scores. In fact, if one is challenged to a duel, he or she must accept the challenge, unless he or she has a pass.

Pliney is telling a younger person, referred to throughout the story simply as “kid,” about his day, to show how hard it is to make a living as a criminal in an environment in which most activities that were once outlawed are now legal. To m make a living, he says, an individual must constantly “hustle.” To illustrate his contention, he describes his activities, which, he implies, are typical of any day’s dealings in the undercity.

He started his day with an accomplice, sabotaging Gia Cybernetic Repairs, a robot fix-it plant. Then, he delivered a map of part of the undercity’s sewer system to Gene and Miriam Potemkin, a couple who want to escape from the undercity, despite the rumors that, beyond its protective dome, the atmosphere is contaminated by poisons and is inhospitable to life. They are willing to risk death, they say, to avoid the constricting limits of their environment.

Pliney next visit’s the megalopolis’ garbage dump, where he works with K. O. Wilson, who manages the operation’s first shift, and Marty Linnert, who manages the operation’s second shift, allowing Pliney to skim off valuables from the undercity’s refuse before it is “catalogued and sent up to the city’s lost-and-found bureau.” During this visit, Pliney is able to scavenge rings, watches. Coins, and a “diamond tiara.”

Following his visit to the garbage site, Pliney learns that the sabotaged robot-repair plant has been repaired--by men on his payroll, who have charged an exorbitant fee. He then arranges an illegal marriage between Arthur Coleman, a dominant, sexist man, and his submissive girlfriend Eileen, in defiance of the undercity’s Equal Rights Act, which forbids male chauvinism.

Revisiting the garbage dump, Pliney scavenges “silver dinnerware an antique oil lantern, and a somewhat soiled set of twentieth-century pornographic photographs” worth big money as “comic nostalgia.” Then, he illegally sells an oversize apartment--that is, one that is larger than the law allows a single man--to a customer with a yen for more spacious accommodations than he now enjoys.

The Potemkins are caught by a maintenance crew as they seek to escape through the sewer tunnel on Pliney’s map, and afraid that, during their interrogation by the police, the couple will implicate him in their escape plan, he burns down the office--a front doing business (or not) as Cargill Marriage Counseling--in which he keeps additional escape maps. (During his recounting of this adventure, he tells his listener that he must be careful to avoid arrest, even to the point of wearing “transparent plastic fingertip shields to keep from leaving prints.” It‘s obvious that, as he recites his day‘s activities, Pliney takes every opportunity to lecture the “kid” concerning the tricks of the criminal trade. He is not merely a raconteur; he is a mentor.)

Coleman advises Pliney that he and his girlfriend want to marry this evening, instead of waiting the customary six months to do so, and if Pliney refuses to arrange the ceremony, he will take his business elsewhere. Afraid that Coleman will hire “some incompetent criminal hack who’ll botch the falsification of Eileen’s death certificate,” which is needed before a new identity can be fabricated for her, making her a person without a past that the police can check, and that Coleman and Eileen will be arrested, informing the police about him, Pliney agrees to meet with the couple to “finalize things” that night, although, to do so, he must postpone an appointment with a man who wants to buy a “Neutral Status Pass” that will exempt him from accepting duel challenges.

His meeting with Coleman and his bride to “:finalize things” is the reason, he tells his listener, that he is late getting home. The next day, he says, the “kid” can tag along as he goes about his business, so that he can provide tips as he teaches her “the business.” He adds that he has no doubt but that her late mother would be proud of their daughter, who has all the qualities of a successful career criminal.

Koontz’s tongue-in-cheek story suggests that human beings are innately wired, as it were, to sin. Even if vices were legalized, others would flourish, because it is the nature of men and women to seek that which is forbidden and to indulge themselves in the pursuit of the banned and the prohibited. It is this impulse, he suggests, which explains the existence of both Las Vegas and organized crime, just as it explains the fact that, despite the existence of a “Sin City” and the mob, ordinary men and women, like the everymen and women who populate his undercity, vice, sin, corruption, and crime will continue to thrive everywhere. No city limits can contain the transgressions of the human heart. The undercity is every city. Moreover, Koontz suggests, even if humanity were to legalize activities which are currently illegal, forbidden desires would manifest themselves in the pursuit of objects and activities that would fall outside the laws of even the most permissive societies. The problem is not in the doing, he implies, but in the doer--or the wrongdoer.

That’s quite an impressive theme--original sin--for such a slight story. In this early piece of fiction, Koontz is as deft as ever in sketching characters (he has never been adept at true characterization, such as novels demand), at delivering the surprise ending (the criminal narrator’s protégé is his own daughter), at describing the setting, and at extrapolating from the actual and the familiar to the imaginary and bizarre, abilities which served him well as a science fiction writer, which served him well as an author of horror fiction, and which serve him moderately well as a writer of cross-genre fiction.
He hasn’t lost his touch, even today, but his fiction has lost some of its heart and soul, as any body of work must do when it is stamped out by the cookie cutter of formula with interchangeable characters, settings, plots, and themes--the same story, time and again, wherein only the names change. In his heyday, which, alas, was yesterday, Koontz could write more engaging fiction than the pap he produces today. “Undercity” is worth many of his current works, although it is but a short story and his current stuff takes the form of the novel.

There’s another plus about “Undercity” that a reader doesn’t get in any of Koontz’s more contemporary works. There’s no dog in the cast.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Generating, Heightening, and Maintaining Suspense

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

To create suspense, signal to the reader that something dire is about to happen. Use dramatic irony so that the reader knows more (namely, that something dire is about to happen) than the protagonist knows. Alternatively, situational irony can be employed to mislead the reader into thinking that something other than what does, in fact, occur is likely to happen. (As I point out in “The Others: A Masterpiece of Situational Irony,” this film does a superb job of using situational irony to create, heighten, and maintain suspense.)

A writer can employ the journalist’s technique to generate and develop suspense as well, asking who? what? when? where? how? and why?

Who is to be subjected to the dire circumstances, situation, or event? By identifying several characters as being liable to suffer from an impending crisis, the writer allows the reader to sit on pins and needles, so to speak, waiting to see which potential victim must endure the expected catastrophe. By making one character stand out as nobler or more sympathetic or more likeable than the others and another as more ignoble, unsympathetic, or unlikable, the writer can increase the reader’s anxiety, making him or her wonder whether doom will befall the former or the latter character.

What may happen can also be a means of generating, heightening, and maintaining suspense. By being vague about the nature of the threat or by identifying several possible catastrophes, the writer can make the reader fret over which one will occur. The suspense can be increased, too, by offering a range of possible cataclysms, from mile (a flash flood, say) to wild (perhaps a tsunami), any of which may occur.

When will the tragedy befall the characters? This question will keep the reader turning pages long past bedtime. Alfred Hitchcock spoke of the efficacy of making his audience sweat by making them wait. He used the example of a time bomb of which the audience was aware is set to explode at a predetermined, not-too-distant moment. Oblivious of the danger, the protagonist goes blithely about his or her business, possibly, the audience fears, until it is too late.

Where will the calamity take place? If the reader knows but the protagonist does not and his or her itinerary includes the location of the impending disaster, the reader will grow more and more anxious as zero hour approaches and the main character is on a path that may put him or her in harm’s way.

How will the catastrophe occur? If we know and know, moreover, how to circumvent or stop it, we may anxiously wait to see whether the hero or the heroine figures out how to save him- or herself (and, possibly, the world) in time or are incinerated, eviscerated, bludgeoned, or otherwise unpleasantly dispatched.

The question of why a villain chooses to commit murder, mayhem, genocide, or some other dastardly crime may not be as immediate a cause of suspense as other questions may be, but the reader will want to know what motivated the antagonist, and the reader will read on, anticipating that, at some point, usually toward the end of the narrative, the writer will make everything clear.

The use of dramatic and situational irony, coupled with the use of the journalist’s who? what? when? where? how? and why? Questions will help the author of horror stories, including you, generate, heighten, and maintain suspense!

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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