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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.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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