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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.

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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.

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My Cup of Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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