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).