Fascinating lists!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Monster as (Straw) Bogeyman

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Symbolically, cannibals already represent several more mundane horrors. In “What Libertarianism Is,” John Hospers offers another meaning for them. In writing of “moral cannibalism” (his emphasis), he argues:

A cannibal in the physical sense is a person who lives off the flesh of other human beings. A moral [again, Hospers’ emphasis] cannibal is one who believes he has a right to live off the “spirit” of other human beings--who believes that he has a moral claim on the productive capacity, time, and effort expended by others.
There is no free lunch (pathetic pun intended), however, and moral cannibals’ appetites for the results of others’ hard work must be borne, Hospers points out, by those whom these cannibals devour:

It has become fashionable to claim virtually everything that one needs or desires as one’s right. Thus, many people claim that they have a right to a job, the right to free medical care, to free food and clothing, to a decent home, and so on. Now if one asks, apart from any specific context, whether it would be desirable if everyone had these things, one might well say yes. But there is a gimmick attached to each of them: At whose expense? [Italics are Hospers’.]
In a politically correct period, Hospers’ argument might not go down well with some. Indeed, many might find his assertions a bit hard to swallow--which is why, in fiction (and, in this case, since we’re talking cannibals, most likely horror fiction, at that) often uses fantastic creatures as metaphors for more mundane (and possibly more horrible) threats, dangers, risks, and menaces.

The entitlement mentality is alive and well and living in a neighborhood near yours. However, powerful social and political forces have a vested interest in muddying debate about how much, if any, of one’s time and resources should be taken from one person, a producer (or host), and given to another, a consumer (or parasite). Therefore, fiction creates a sort of straw man, upon whom the painful truth can be unleashed.

Sure, a cannibal may want to eat someone else out of house and home (and heart and brain), but, in depicting such monsters, authors of horror stories are talking about rarities among men and women, not the reader’s friend, neighbor, or brother-in-law (or, for that matter, the reader him- or herself). After all, it’s one thing to want to devour another person’s entrails and quite another to want “a job. . . free medical care. . . free food and clothing. . . a decent home, and so on.” Right?

In times past, the “all-licensed fool,” as Shakespeare calls the court jester in King Lear, could speak freely of matters that, were others to mention them, would cost their heads, under the pretense that, as a fool, the jester was speaking nonsense, after all. Today, our modern fools, the comedians, likewise enjoy fairly wide leeway (although not as wide as that which his or her medieval counterpart was afforded). In addition, writers and other artists, once believed to be madmen and women, possessed of wild muses, or daemons, were granted similar privileges, or “license.” To some extent, they still are, largely because they have, quite wisely, adopted the stratagem of creating the straw man--or the straw bogeyman--as a surrogate for their real targets, whether these targets are those with an entitlement mentality or otherwise.

By unmasking the monster, reader and critic alike are, more often than not, likely to come face to face with a protected minority, attitude, value, or bias of the ruling class or, in America, the reigning political party of the moment. The entitlement mentality, as represented by the “moral cannibal” of whom Hospers speaks, is a conservative bogeyman.

Liberals have their own versions and counterparts, one of which is the ecological philistine who not only refuses to believe in global warming but who also persists in driving gas-guzzlers; in setting the temperature to a comfortable level, regardless of the amount of fuel that is required to maintain such comfort; in championing drilling for oil; and even in displaying the unmitigated audacity of believing that human beings have--or should have--as much a right to the land as the least snail darter. Such threats appear in such movies as Godzilla, Toxic Avenger, and The Happening and such novels as Bentley Little’s The Vanishing and Stephen King’s Under the Dome, about which King declares:

From the very beginning, I saw it as a chance to write about the serious ecological problems that we face in the world today. The fact is we all live under the dome. We have this little blue world that we've all seen from outer space, and it appears like that's about all there is. It's a natural allegorical situation, without whamming the reader over the head with it. I don't like books where everything stands for everything else. It works with Animal Farm: You can be a child and read it as a story about animals, but when you're older, you realize it's about communism, capitalism, fascism. That's the genius of Orwell. But I love the idea about isolating these people, addressing the questions that we face. We're a blue planet in a corner of the galaxy, and for all the satellites and probes and Hubble pictures, we haven't seen evidence of anyone else. There's nothing like ours. We have to conclude we're on our own, and we have to deal with it. We're under the dome. All of us.
There are plenty of bogeymen for both the left and the right ends of the socioeconomic-political continuum, but, in an age of intolerant political correctness, in which freedom of speech (and the freedom of thought which it expresses) is threatened on all sides, in lieu of the medieval fool whose time has come and gone, writers, especially of horror, must disguise the real horrors about which they write by dressing these fiends in the teeth and nails of cannibals or the hidebound fur of ecological cavemen. That way, readers on both ends of the political spectrum can pretend that the movies and novels with which they disagree are really just about fiends who eat the flesh of their own kind (and not men and women possessed of an entitlement mentality) or are about nothing more than subhuman barbarians (and not traitors to the environment).

Democrats, however, know the truth about Republicans. Likewise, no Democrat can pull the wool over a Republican’s eyes. Both parties know which is beast and which is hero. The monsters in the movies they watch in the dark and about which they read in novels, long past midnight, tell them. In doing so, such stories both confirm their worst fears and validate their favorite biases.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Cemeteries: A Matter of Setting Boundaries

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Earlier today, I was watching a movie on the ScyFy Channel. I didn’t bother to watch more than a few minutes of it, and I didn’t make any attempt to identify its title. What was of interest to me was the setting of the particular scene I’d happened to tune in: a cemetery.

Readers and writers of horror fiction have--or should have--an affinity for graveyards. When it comes to these places, the older are the better, because modern cities of the dead look more like parks, complete with flowers, than they do burial places.

The cemetery in the ScyFy movie was an old one: the stones were weathered; the names and dates associated with the remains of the interred loved ones (long since forgotten, no doubt, in most cases) were obliterated by wind and rain, by sleet and snow, and by passage of slow time; the grounds were untended, home to ragged clusters of weeds and bordered by brush. Skeletal trees stirred among the dilapidated headstones, casting deep shadows across the rugged terrain. There were no mausoleums or other buildings of any kind. Most disturbing of all, there were neither fences nor walls.

The lack of such boundaries is the most disturbing feature of the burial place. The fact that there is no clear-cut perimeter means that there is no unambiguous distinction between the cemetery and the surrounding terrain, no specific division between the quick and the dead, no precise demarcation between the natural world and the supernatural realm.

When there are no clear-cut boundaries, borders blur. How far beyond the rough confines of the cemetery do its outer limits truly lie? If the burial ground is haunted, how far does its influence project? How distant can its tendrils of evil reach? How far does its decadence and malevolence go? If we were passersby or we were waiting at a bus stop for a bus to stop or we were passenger and driver in a car that stalled just outside the last line of wind-whittled, rain-ravaged headstones, would we be all right or would we be assaulted by zombies or ghosts or ghouls? Would things, once human, rise from their graves, clotted with gore or putrescent with decay, moldy and withered, to shamble forward, toward us, ravenous with hunger or hell bent upon some nameless and unspeakable mission of their own?

Without clear boundaries, there may be no limits at all.

Of course, these boundaries need not be of iron or stone. They need not be locked behind fences and walls. There need not be a gate across the entrance to the place wherein the dead play host to worms. In horror fiction, conventions are the sentinels who guard the boundary between this world and the next. If they fall, we are imperiled.

And, more and more, conventions do fall.

For example, for the longest time, a character who was well known, if not well loved, to readers was protected by such familiarity--which had taken the writer, after all, scores, if not hundreds, of pages to establish. Others might suffer and die--no, others would suffer and die, for the genre is horror, after all--and their deaths might be horrific and terrible, full of pain and torment, but this one or these few, whom we know well, in whom the writer had invested so much time and effort, whom we understand and might even like, respect, or love, are sacrosanct and, against them, not even the malevolence of the monster itself might prevail.

That was the convention, at any rate, before Stephen King overturned it in his fiction, killing off as many likeable and well-liked characters as he liked. The result was to increase readers’ anxiety and the suspense of his own work, for in toppling this convention, King also toppled readers’ certainty and easy confidence, opening new possibilities for fear and trepidation. One could no longer be sure which character would survive and which would die. Therefore, any character could suffer, and any character could die.

The boundaries expanded, blurred, bled. . . .

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Dust Jacket Plotting

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

If you’re like most people, you find plotting a novel difficult, even with such helps as those I have identified and explained in many previous posts. There can never be enough tips or techniques, it seems, when it comes to making (or trying to make) plotting E-Z. So, here’s another tip: write your synopsis as if it’s the blurb inside the dust jacket of the finished book. Doing so is apt to help you to envision your novel as a finished product. It may also help you to emphasize the promotional aspects of your story, those features which are likely to sell your story to the reader (and, indeed, an editor).

In preparation for doing so, you might read a couple of existing blurbs. These will get you into the spirit of things and indicate how to ignite your prospective readers’ interest in your story. Here are a couple, to get you started, followed by one concerning one of my own novels. The first sample is from the book jacket of Stephen King’s Needful Things (1991); the second is from the just jacket of Dean Koontz’s Breathless (2009). Each is superbly written.

Needful Things: The Last Castle Rock Story

With a demonic blend of malice and affection, Stephen King says goodbye to the town he put on the map--Castle Rock, Maine. . . where Polly Chalmers runs You Sew and Sew and Sheriff Alan Pangborn is in charge of keeping the peace. It’s a small town, and Stephen King fans might think they know its secrets pretty well: they’ve been here before.

Leland Grant is a stranger--and he calls his shop Needful Things. Eleven-year-old Brian Rusk is his first customer, and Brian finds just what he wants most in all the world: a ‘56 Sandy Koufax baseball card. By the end of the week, Mr. Gaunt’s business is fairly booming, and why not? At Needful Things, there’s something for everyone.

And, of course, there is always a price. For Leland Gaunt, the pleasure of doing business lies chiefly in seeing how much people will pay for their most secret dreams and desires. And as Leland Gaunt always points out, at Needful Things, the prices
are high in deed. Does that stop people from buying? Has it ever?

For Allan and Polly, this one week in autumn will be an awful test--a test of will, desire, and pain. Above all, it will be a test of their ability to grasp the true nature of their enemy. They may have a chance. . . But maybe not, because, as Mr. Gaunt knows, almost everything is for sale: love, hope, even the human soul.

With the potent storytelling authority that millions of readers have come to prize, Stephen King delivers an Our Town with a vengeance, an inimitable farewell to a place his fiction has often and long called home.

This blurb consists of 285 words. Notice that each of its first four paragraphs are of approximately the same length: 63 words, 58 words, 57 words, and 64 words, respectively. At 36 words, the concluding paragraph is a bit shorter. In this short space, the blurb’s author has accomplished a good deal, suggesting the tone (a mixture of “malice and affection”); introducing several characters, including protagonist Sheriff Pangborn and antagonist Leland Gaunt; identifying the setting as Castle Rock, Maine; and establishing the basic conflict, which examines, as its theme, the price that people are willing to pay for the things they want most in all the world. The blurb’s writer has, in the allusion to a famous play, also suggested a comparison between King’s novel and Thornton Wilder’s dark drama of small-town horror. Not bad for 285 words!

The blurb suggests the elements that appeal most to prospective readers: intriguing characters involved in an intriguing situation in a familiar location that involves an important theme and is told with flair. Adjectives further indicate what readers will encounter in the novel’s pages: “malice,” “affection,” humor (Chalmer’s shop is named “You Sew and Sew”), the “secrets” of a small town, a mysterious “stranger,” the question of “how much people will pay for their most secret dreams and desires,” and a severe testing of characters.

#1 New York Times bestselling author Dean Koontz delivers a thrilling novel of suspense and adventure, as the lives of strangers converge around a mystery unfolding high in the Colorado mountains--and the balance of the world begins to
tilt. . . .


In the stillness of a golden September afternoon, deep in the wilderness of the Rockies, a solitary craftsman, Grady Adams, and his magnificent Irish wolfhound, Merlin, step from shadow into light. . . and into an encounter with enchantment. That night, through the trees, under the moon, a pair of singular animals will watch Grady’s isolated home, waiting to make their approach. A few miles away, Camilla Rivers, a local veterinarian, begins to unravel the threads of a puzzle that will bring to her door all the forces of a government in peril.

At a nearby farm, long-estranged identical twins come together to begin a descent into darkness. . . . In Las Vegas, a specialist in chaos theory probes the boundaries of the unknowable. . .. On a Seattle golf course, two men make matter-of-fact arrangements for murder. . . . Along a highway by the sea, a vagrant scarred by the past begins a trek toward his destiny.

In a novel that is at once wholly of our time and timeless, fearless and funny, Dean Koontz takes readers into the moment between one turn of the world and the next, across the border between knowing and mystery. It is a journey that will leave all who take it Breathless.

At a total of 254 words, the blurb for Koontz’s novel is 31 words shorter than the one for King’s, but Breathless, at 337 pages, is quite a bit shorter than the 690-page Needful Things. In fact, King’s novel is a little more than twice the length of Koontz’s book. The paragraphs of the blurb for Koontz’s novel number 42 words, 62 words, 31 words, 67 words, and 51 words each, respectively. They are not nearly as symmetrical as the paragraphs in the blurb for King’s novel, nor is the information that they impart as specific or clear.

What does the Koontz book blurb accomplish? It identifies the setting, introduces the protagonist and other major characters, suggests a situation of national importance that involves “the forces of a government in peril,” mentions a conspiracy to commit murder, alludes to a movement of mysterious forces, and indicates the narrative’s tone (“fearless and funny”). A bit vague about the details of the novel’s plot, the blurb’s elusiveness underscores the mystery of the forces at work, suggesting that fate may be operating behind the scenes, as it were. As with the King book blurb, the Koontz book blurb also uses adjectives to pinpoint the elements to which readers are known to respond: “mysterious,” “singular,” “isolated,” “unknowable,” “scarred,” “timeless,” “fearless,” and “funny.”

These blurbs are not the full-fledged synopses that editors will want to see when they are deciding whether to green light publication, of course. Their objective isn’t to summarize the entire plot of the novels they represent, but to pitch the basic storylines to prospective readers who are willing to read two or three hundred words to get an idea of what the book they hold in their hands may offer. A full-fledged synopsis will run 15 pages or more. Nevertheless, these blurbs are good starting places for writers faced with the task of plotting the basic idea for their latest (or, for that matter, first) novel. They supply such prerequisites of plotting as protagonist, antagonist, setting, conflict, tone, and theme. They seek an appealing means of orienting the writer’s storyline to readers’ interests.

Here is a blurb for my own first novel Saturday's Child:

Although Crystal Fall, her not-so-secret admirer David Lewis, and their friends Fran Newell and Dee Dee Dawkins crack jokes and behave in the silly manner characteristic of teens across America, what’s happening at their alma mater, Edgar Allan Poe High School, in southern California is no laughing matter.

Their new principal, Dr. Snyder, has introduced changes, both to the school’s curriculum and to the way things are done at Poe, none of them good. For example, he not only lengthens the school days to twelve hours, but he also institutes Saturday school. Once open, the campus is now closed. In fact, it has become more like a prison than a school, with the patrol officers, or “trolls,” as the students call them, guarding the campus and surveillance cameras everywhere--even in the locker rooms and restrooms.

An odd dress code is imposed, governing even students’ choice of underwear. Strange, whispered messages are repeated all day in the music piped through the school’s public address system. Students are compelled to eat in the school cafeteria,
and a secret ingredient has been added to their food. A student health clinic is planned, wherein hypnotized students will receive mental health evaluations--and brain implants.

If the new administration wins, personal freedom will be lost forever, and Crystal and her friends will become the first of an army of brain-dead public servants in a new world order. And the odds seem stacked against the teens, for Principal Snyder is backed by top government officials with unlimited resources, including an endless supply of funds and military forces. But the teens are willing, even at the cost of great personal sacrifice, or even death, to take back their school, and Crystal and her friends have a secret ally: God is on their side!
My blurb numbers 295 words: 48 (paragraph one), 87 (paragraph two), 64 (paragraph three), and 96 (paragraph 4), so the lengths are a bit uneven. Perhaps the text can be shortened a bit without losing the hoped-for appeal of the blurb to prospective readers. The relative lengths, in words, indicate where chopping may best take place: the second and last paragraphs are rather longwinded in comparison to the other two.

As a rough draft, though, my novel’s blurb accomplishes the same sorts of things as those for King’s and Koontz’s books. Like their books’ blurbs, mine sets the tone; introduces the major players, including both the protagonist and the antagonist; identifies the basic conflict, implying that it is significant; establishes the setting; and suggests the story’s theme.

As a means of getting the novel’s basic outline down on paper in a compelling fashion, it’s a pretty good way to kick-start one’s imagination and get the creative juices flowing. Such a synopsis, although far from the level of detail that a publisher would require, also allows one to expand upon the basic storyline, adding details to fill out the plot, develop the characters, describe the setting, maintain the tone, expand the conflict, and convey the theme.

Not bad for fewer than 300 words.
Note: Saturday’s Child is available, in print or on CD, from Amazon.com.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Grand Entrance

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Buffy Summers, the protagonist of the television series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that bears her name, moves from Los Angeles to the “one-Starbucks town” of Sunnydale, California. She’s a young, nubile hottie, and, as she ascends the stairs leading up to the sidewalk that approaches her new high school, she catches the eye of Xander Harris as he arrives on the scene, aboard his skateboard (“Welcome to the Hellmouth“). Enthralled by the new coed, he is so busy examining her physical assets, instead of watching where he’s going, that he’s doubled over the handrail with which he collides as his vehicle flies out from under him. Not only is his mishap humorous, and perhaps deserved, but it also has the benefit of focusing the viewer’s attention upon him and, indirectly, upon the object of his attention, Buffy herself--or a portion of her, at any rate.

In another episode, “Lover’s Walk,” the vampire Spike runs over a “Welcome to Sunnydale” street sign as he returns to town.

In “Hell’s Belles,” Xander’s future self (or supposed future self) arrives at his younger self’s wedding to warn Xander not to go through with his marriage to former vengeance demon Anyanka Jenkins. The elder Xander makes his appearance carrying a bright red umbrella.

When Buffy goes to Sunnydale’s bus station in search of the male foreign exchange student who is supposed to stay with her and her mother, Joyce, during his visit to the golden state, she is surprised (as is the show’s audience) to discover that the student, Ampata, is a girl (“Inca Mummy Girl”).

Kendra Young, another slayer, activated, so to speak, upon Buffy’s earlier (and temporary) demise, is mistaken for an assassin, come to kill Buffy (whom Kendra herself mistakes for a vampire after she observes Buffy kissing her vampire boyfriend Angel) (“What‘s My Line, Part I”).

“Faith, Hope, and Trick” introduces not only the slayer Faith who is called after Kendra’s death at the hands of the vampire Drusilla, but the episode also introduces viewers to Faith’s nemesis, an ancient vampire named Kakistos and to his henchman, Mr. Trick, another, lesser vampire. As Faith dances with a young man at Sunnydale’s teen nightclub, The Bronze, his outdated dance moves make Buffy suspicious. Thinking he may be a vampire, Buffy follows him outside when he leaves with his dance partner, only to be astonished to see how quickly and easily the dark-haired beauty dispatches the fiend when he does attack her. Obviously, a new slayer has arrived in town. Earlier, Mr. Trick, chauffeuring Kakistos, orders a soda at the drive-through window of a local fast-food restaurant. Becoming hungry when Kakistos talks about devouring the slayer, Mr. Trick decides to pick up some food to go, and he drags the terrified restaurant clerk through the window, into the limousine.

What these scenes and incidents have in common is that each of them represents a grand entrance of sorts for the characters they introduce. By bringing a new character on the scene in an unusual, dramatic manner, rather than simply having him or her make an appearance in an ordinary, banal way, the series’ writers make the new characters stand out from everyone and everything else, and, from the very outset, these characters are memorable.

Once characters are established as regular or recurring members of the cast, viewers aren’t allowed to take them for granted. Through witty dialogue, the show’s writers keep viewers interested in the characters as the dramatic personae continuously deliver hilarious, often characteristic lines.

Narcissistic Cordelia Chase, for instance, after running over a fellow student during Driver’s Education class and breaking the girl’s leg, exclaims, “It’s the worst day of my life, and she’s trying to make it about her leg” (“Out o Sight, Out of Mind”). In another episode, Cordelia says, “Look, Buffy, you may be hot stuff when it comes to demonology or whatever, but when it comes to dating, I’m the slayer” (“Halloween”).

Xander, likewise, is full of comical one-liners, many of them targeting Cordelia’s vanity and arrogance: in reply to her question, asked while she’s complaining about having been awakened to give him a ride to Buffy’s house, “What am I now, mass transportation?” he quips, “That’s what a lot of the guys say, but it’s just locker room talk” (“What’s My Line, Part I”). Regarding a skimpy outfit Cordelia wears, Xander remarks, “I don’t know what everyone’s talking about, Cordelia. That outfit doesn’t make you look like a hooker” (“The Zeppo”).

The series has much to teach writers, and the importance of having a new character make a grand entrance and of keeping him or her interesting throughout the story (or series) by putting witty words in their mouths are two lessons that the show imparts to discerning viewers who want to be beguiling writers. In a later post, we’ll look at a few of the show’s other narrative techniques.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Equating “This” with “That”

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Like most art, fiction is built upon metaphorical understandings and communications of human experience. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the underlying metaphors are frequently fairly obvious. The obvious metaphors for evil may lower the literary and dramatic quality of the series, but it also makes the show a good example for teaching others how the process (this = that) works.

The “this” is the metaphor; the “that” is its real-world, or existential, counterpart. For example, invisibility = being ignored is the metaphorical equation that underlies the episode “Out of Sight, Out of Mind,” and cavemen’s conduct = boorish, drunken behavior is the metaphorical equation upon which the episode “Beer Bad” is based.

To use this approach in your own stories, identify a thing (or, often, a state of existence) that can represent another state of affairs--the one with which your story is concerned. Although you would not explain to your reader that “this is that,” you, as a writer, should be aware of the basic metaphor and its implications, thematic and otherwise. The use of a metaphorical equation in which this thing or state of affairs equals that existential state of affairs will enhance your story by adding depth and complexity to the plot and, indeed, the characters that are involved in the story’s action.

For example, in another Buffy episode, a male ghost possesses men and the ghost of his previous lover possesses women as these spirits seek to work out the issues (guilt, mostly) that resulted from their teacher-student affair and the eventual shooting of the teacher (and her death) at the hands of the student after the teacher tried to end their relationship. Their existence as ghosts allowed writers to suggest that the spirits were in purgatory and to propose that an illicit affair between an older person in a position of responsibility and authority over (in this case) her protégé is not only wrong but also dangerous. The ghosts who haunt Sunnydale High School are themselves haunted--by their pasts. (A similar theme occurs in the movie The Others, which concerns the ghost of Grace Stewart, who is in purgatory because of her murder of her own children, followed by her suicide. However, thanks to its masterful use of situational irony, the film has much more depth and complexity than the Buffy episode, which is, nevertheless, excellent as a one-hour television episode.)

To enrich your stories, find the metaphor for the real-life matter you’re writing about and let this metaphorical equation of “this = that” communicate to your reader’s (or viewer’s) unconscious mind.

Reacting with Fear and Trembling

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Horror posters can be very instructive for writers. Take the one for Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. It shows the movie’s protagonist, Nancy Thompson, a teenage girl, lying in bed, presumably naked (the blanket is pulled up over her breasts, but her shoulders and upper arms, like her neck, are bare), staring wide-eyed; her wild hair is fanned out behind her, upon the pillow. Superimposed upon the headboard (the slats of which resemble prison bars) is a skull with bulging eyes and a bloody metallic hand, the fingers of which are knife- or razor-like blades. The caption reads, “If Nancy doesn’t wake up screaming, she won’t wake up at all.”

Normally, one would suppose that to wake up screaming implies an unpleasant and undesirable experience--a nightmare--so the assertion that “she won’t wake up at all” unless she “wakes up screaming” is intriguing, just as the advertisers no doubt mean it to be. The poster is instructive for writers because it suggests a way by which irony can suggest a storyline in which it is, indeed, better to awaken than not to awaken at all. What’s worse than a nightmare? One from which the dreamer doesn’t awaken--one that kills.

A poster for Alien warns, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” A poster for the movie Anaconda bears a similar caution: “When you can’t breathe, you can’t scream.” Below this caption are a pair of yellow reptilian eyes and a suggestion of scales lost in surrounding darkness, followed by the film’s title and the promise, “It will take your breath away.” You won’t, therefore, be able to scream; your terror will squeeze the breath--and very possibly, it is implied--the life out of you, just as the gigantic snake of the film’s title will squeeze its onscreen victims to death.

The inability to get one’s breath is terrifying (as anyone who has ever choked, for example, certainly is aware), rendering one helpless, frantic, and unable to call for help. A story about such hopelessness is, like Anaconda, likely to be terrifying, and, of course, there are many ways to render a victim helpless besides having them squeezed by an anaconda.

“What do I see,” the Beatles once asked, “when I turn out the light?” Answer: darkness, and darkness is symbolic of the unknown, of evil, of death, and a slew of other unpleasant conditions and states of mind. What if the night were not just the result of an absence of light? What if it were alive? What if it had claws and fangs and could fly? What if it were a vampire ands sucked blood?

This is the premise suggested by the poster for Bats (the title is suspended, from the top edge of the poster, suggesting bats clinging to the ceiling of a cave or other sanctuary). Two luminous eyes appear in the night sky, above the suggestion of a head and leathery wings. Below the outstretched wings is a cluster of other dark, similar shapes and the silhouette of a leafless tree. To the right is a house, black but for the illuminated square of a window in its side. The roof seems to be lifting into sunset that stretches beneath the darkening sky above the red and gold clouds, as if into an invisible whirlwind. A closer look shows that what first appeared to roof tiles are, in fact, part of a flurry of bats. The congregation of bats represent the night itself and all that darkness symbolizes, as the poster’s caption makes clear: “Where do you hide when the dark is alive?”

This poster reinforces the importance of the use of symbolism and metaphor in fiction. Such figures of speech communicate with readers on an unconscious, almost subliminal, level. Writers are well aware of the unconscious mind’s perception of such implied associations, and they use this tendency to good effect. Stephen King, for example, uses Cujo, his rabid St. Bernard, to symbolize the unfaithfulness of his novel’s protagonist, Donna Trenton, and the destructive effect her adultery has upon her son, her husband, and her marriage.

By picturing one’s story as a poster, complete with defining image and caption, a writer can clarify his or her theme and highlight the source of the story’s horror. Alternatively, by studying the posters that promote existing horror movies, an author can discover emotional links between image and text or between the “this” and the “that” of a metaphor, an antithesis, hyperbolic statement, metonymy, simile, and similar figures of speech.

We think by drawing relationships between perceptions and thoughts (or feelings), and by drawing such relationships indirectly and nonverbally, through associations of color, shape, direction, image, figures of speech, and rhetorical and visual devices, we can suggest the “this” of the ordinary may be associated with the “that” of the extraordinary, the “that” of the monstrous, the “that” of the supernatural, or the “that” of the horrific. The unconscious mind isn’t disturbed by incongruity or logical non-sequiturs. It operates on instinct and emotion, not reason, after all, and the suggestion that “this” is “that” is all the cue it needs to react with fear and trembling.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Characterization via Tarot

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Using the Tarot deck as a shorthand system for establishing the bases of characters can be as effective as any other approach. Whether the mysticism behind the Tarot deck or the Jungian brand of psychoanalysis, which shares some of the same notions concerning human nature and the human condition as the Tarot tradition proposes, is true or even valid is debatable at best. However, fiction, by definition, is itself not true; it needs only to be true to life, or believable, and whatever approach to personality and human behavior appears plausible is likely to be acceptable to most readers. Psychology, after all, is an inexact science, with many schools of thought concerning why people behave as they do, and fiction has always been pragmatic in electing to use whatever theory, of psychology or any other discipline, might promote its own literary aims. Before psychology existed as a study, writers referenced the theory of the four humors to explain human conduct, and some students of human behavior refer, even today, to the ideas of both Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung. Horror writers need be no different than other writers.

So, what can horror writers gain from Tarot? The positive aspects of the cards (especially those of the major arcana) provide traits useful for characterizing the good guys and gals of your narrative, while these qualities, reversed (opposed or blocked), suggest possibilities for the characterization of the bad guys and gals.

I won’t go through all 21 of the major arcana cards. Information about them is readily available. To illustrate my point, I will suggest how three of these cards could be employed to create protagonists, antagonists, and other sympathetic or unsympathetic characters.

In most stories, the protagonist is apt to be an embodiment of the Fool, who seeks a new start, embracing life’s possibilities as he (or she) embarks upon a journey, actual or figurative, sometimes without planning all that well, if at all, for the eventualities that are likely to be encountered. The Fool has a profound, albeit perhaps rather naïve, faith in the notion that he’ll be able to get by, that his needs will be fulfilled, that he will be all right regardless of how much he plans, works, or strives. In fact (especially in a horror story), he may not be, of course, and his shortsightedness and spontaneity might help to bring him to misfortune.

Reversed, the Fool is apt either to have trouble getting started upon his adventure (that is, he may suffer from the failure to launch syndrome), or he might get stuck in his ways, failing to find the inspiration that motivates him to continue the adventure he’s undertaken.

When you think about the Fool, chances are you will recall having read about him in a horror novel or seen him in a film of this genre. Gordie LaChance and his buddies, Chris Chambers, Teddy Duchamp, and Vern Tessio, the boys in Stephen King’s The Body (and the movie, Stand By Me, based upon it), come to mind.

The Sun character is the successful, triumphant man or woman who, having discovered a great truth (or maybe several great truths) about life enjoys pleasure and fulfillment. He or she enjoys his or her day in the sun.

According to Jung, the Devil archetype represents the repression of desires, impulses, and other aspects of one’s unconscious that are condemned by society.

Opposed. This character is subject to emotion and superstition and is apt to reason falsely, taking evidence out of context or reaching warped or twisted conclusions about the facts before him or her.

Blocked, the Sun character suffers from confusion, perceiving things as through a glass darkly, and he or she may have trouble interacting with youngsters.

When you think about the Sun, chances are you will recall having read about him in a horror novel or seen him in a film of this genre. Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Willow Rosenberg is an example, as is Smallville’s Lex Luthor.

The Devil card does not refer to Satan or a lesser demon. Rather, this card alludes to unbridled ambition and a lust for power. He or she can be authoritative, powerful, even manipulative and controlling.

Opposed, the Devil character can succumb to temptation.

Blocked, this character is repressed and timid in the face of risk and unwilling to take chances.

When you think about the Devil, chances are you will recall having read about him in a horror novel or seen him in a film of this genre. Victor Frankenstein and Dr. Moreau are examples.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Vanishing: Why Theme Matters

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

A horror novel does not hang entirely upon the explanation of the horror, perhaps, but a good amount of readers’ satisfaction (or lack thereof) does hinge upon a satisfactory account of the horrific incidents or events that transpire during the course of the story. By satisfactory, I mean satisfying, and, by satisfying, I mean that the explanation is both feasible and integral to the action for which it is the account. It is not simply tacked on, as if it were an afterthought, to bring the narrative to a convenient conclusion. It is not a deus ex machina.

As both critics and readers have pointed out, Bentley Little’s novels too often end in such a manner, without rhyme or reason. This has happened, followed by that, for two or three hundred pages, for little enough (if any) reason, and that is, too often, enough for Little. The story is the important thing, and he has entertained his readers; a theme is of no real importance. Such seems to be the point of view of writers such as Little and, indeed, his unofficial mentor, Stephen King (who labels Little “the poet laureate of horror”).

Theme, however, does matter to most readers, writers, and critics. (One suspects that it matters to King, too, if not to his unofficial protégé, because King’s novels and short stories typically do suggest relatively important lessons.) Perhaps themes matter less to Little because fiction that doesn’t challenge or enlarge one’s understanding or tolerance or perspective or sympathy is much easier to write than fiction that does do so.

Unfortunately, although Little’s fiction frequently entertains, it seldom edifies. He often raises some important issues and, more importantly, perhaps, questions, but, because he is seldom, if ever, concerned with such matters as unity and cohesion and the logic of his plot is rarely rigorous, these issues and questions go largely unaddressed. The Vanishing is no exception.

After tantalizing readers with his insightful suggestion that perverse sexuality implies the decadence of human nature out of which such distorted impulses arise, while implying, at the same time, that religious faith (perhaps because it is mired in the same perverted nature), fails to remedy such impulses or to redeem the souls from which they arise, Little ignores these lines of development. Although horror stories frequently depend upon misdirection, which is generally effected through situational irony, such bait-and-switch tactics are usually narrative, seldom thematic, having to do with action rather than the meaning of the story as a whole. Instead of following his own suggested train of thought--that the perverted nature of human beings cannot be rectified through religious redemption or salvation (because, it may be, their very faith is also tainted by their sinful nature), Little turns his could-have been, should-have-been theological story into an ecological one, with the monstrous, Yeti-like creatures who menace the humans (with whom they also fornicate to preserve their corrupt stock), seeking, native American-like, to defend their territory, from encroaching civilization and its pollution of the environment:

“. . . Something Phillip Emmons said last night stuck with me: ‘They slaughtered invaders in order to preserve and defend the vanishing wilderness in which they lived. It was a protective measure.’ When I was doing my research at the library this morning, I looked at everything through that lens, and I have to admit, it made a kind of weird sense. What if whoever--or whatever--is left of this dying breed is trying to fight back, retake the land that was stolen from them, come out from whatever small corner of the wilderness they’ve been pushed into and strike against the now dominant species that stole their spot on the food chain: us?”

He looked at her skeptically. “So we’re involved in some kind of ecological horror story?’

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the forest grew back the day--the day--after the last stand of old growth trees was cut down.”

“Not only that,” she added. “Besides their money, what do Lew and Stephen Stewart and all those other men have in common? Oil, gas, construction, development, real estate. They all make money off the land, through its exploitation or the theft of its natural resources. Sure some of them give back and do good and try top help others, but that’s only because deep inside they feel guilty and know they’ve done wrong.”

“So what are you saying? That they’re killing their own families and committing suicide in order to stop themselves from drilling for oil or building more homes? That’s pretty ridiculous.”

[Readers will doubtlessly agree with this sentiment, at least.]

“. . . When cities expand and encroach on wilderness areas, the animals that live there are either removed or exterminated, forced to coexist or, as is usually the case, pushed even farther out into whatever open country remains. Why should this be any different? Besides, the defense and pursuit of land has caused even more wars than religion.”

“So we’re at war?”

“Aren’t we?” (337-338)
The reference to religion at the end of the novel is entirely too late and too weak to ennoble Little’s ecological theme, however widespread and wholesale his characters may consider the rape of the land and the consequent suffering of its furry denizens. In writing The Vanishing, Little could have given his readers a novel worth reading, akin to King’s Desperation. Instead, “the poet laureate of horror” delivers a mangled tale worthier of M. Night Shyamalan than Little’s own unofficial mentor.

It’s a shame to see talent as great as Little’s go to waste.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Ghosts: An Endangered Species?

Copyright 2010 by Gary Pullman

For various reasons, from humanity’s earliest days, the spirits of the dead, or ghosts, are alleged to have visited the living. Some return to avenge their murders, other to warn loved ones of impending catastrophes, and still others to assuage guilt so powerful that it has survived the grave. If one can believe the stories associated with ghosts, they have haunted everything from ancient graveyards and medieval castles to modern mansions and hotels. Short story writers, novelists, and screenwriters would have their readers and audiences believe that some ghosts have a sense of humor while others are somber, indeed. They have appeared in literary works as diverse as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, H. G. Wells’ “The Red Room,” Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Mark Twain’s “A Ghost Story,” Stephen King’s The Shining and Bag of Bones, and Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas. Ghosts have appeared as guest stars, so to speak, in such movies as Topper, Poltergeist, Beetlejuice, Ghost Busters, The Sixth Sense, The Others, An American Haunting, and many others, and in episodes of such television shows as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Bewitched, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Ghost Hunters. There’s no doubt about it: ghosts have not only been reported throughout history, but they have also enjoyed plenty of airtime. The virtual omnipresence of ghosts is curious when one considers that such entities may not actually exist. Although men and women who believe in the existence of ghosts offer such evidence for their existence as eye-witness reports, photographs, electronic voice phenomena, abrupt temperature drops, and sudden increases in electromagnetic radiation, this evidence can be explained without reference to the entities that are supposed to cause them, which makes the actual existence of ghosts questionable at best.

Since the beginning of time, people have claimed to have seen ghosts, and believers in the existence of spirits of the dead declare that so many people couldn’t be deceived or lying in providing eye-witness testimony. It does seem likely that some--perhaps many--such eyewitnesses really do believe that they have seen ghosts. Seeing isn’t believing, though, or shouldn’t be. Scientists regard eyewitness testimony, or anecdotal or testimonial evidence, as they prefer to call it, as being notoriously unreliable. In “anecdotal (testimonial) evidence,” an Internet article concerning such evidence, Robert T. Carroll points out that “anecdotes are unreliable for various reasons,” including the distortion that occurs as accounts are told and retold, exaggeration, confusion regarding “time sequences,” “selective” memory, misrepresented “experiences,” and a variety of other conditions, including the affect upon their testimony that “biases, memories, and beliefs” have. Carroll also suggests that gullibility, “delusions,” and even deliberate deceit also make such testimony “inherently problematic and usually. . . impossible to test for accuracy.”

Most people who investigate reports concerning the presence or appearances of ghosts also seek to photograph them. It has been said that cameras do not lie, but the problem with photographic evidence is that it is easy for photographers to doctor film. In his Internet article concerning “spirit photography,” James Randi gives an example of a rather crude attempt by some spiritualists to fool folks into believing they’d captured the apparition of the deceased author of the Sherlock Holmes short stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who, as himself a spiritualist, was a frequent focus of “spook-snappers” who “claimed to summon him up after his death in 1930.” The problem, Randi says, with their evidence is that it is “apparently a cut-out of a reversed photo placed in what appears to be cotton wool”; otherwise, the spirit photograph “agrees in detail, lighting, and expression with the original” photograph of the Doyle which was taken in the author’s “prime” (“spirit photography”). In other words, the photograph is a fake. A favorite technique among those who create fake spirit photographs, Carroll points out, is the “double exposure,” an example of which appears on the article’s webpage. A double exposure occurs when the same film is exposed to first one, and then another, object, with the result that the image of the second object overlays or overlaps the image of the first object; both images appear to have been photographed together, at the same time and in the same place. However, pictures of supposed ghosts sometimes result from the photographer’s own incompetence or “natural events,” rather than deliberate deceitfulness, Carroll concedes, including

various flaws in camera or film, effects due to various exposures, film-processing errors, lens flares (caused by interreflection between lens surfaces), the camera or lens strap hanging over the lens, effects of the flash reflecting off of mirrors, jewelry. . . light patterns, polarization, [or] chemical reactions.
When deliberate deceit occurs, photographers may also use graphic art software or computer graphics software to deliberately manipulate photographs that are uploaded from the camera, into a computer.

If neither eyewitness testimony nor photographs prove the existence of ghosts, perhaps electronic voice phenomena, or EVP, do so. A sophisticated term for tape-recorded voices, EVP demonstrate the presence of ghosts, some contend, since sensitive instruments have recorded the disembodied voices of apparitions. However, as Carroll indicates, in his Internet article, “electric voice phenomenon,” skeptics point out that such sounds may not be voices at all, but may be nothing more than the results of “interference from a nearby CB [citizen’s band radio] operator or cross modulation”--one radio station transmitting over another station’s broadcast. Likewise, EVP may be nothing more than a listener’s interpreting “random noise” as the statements of a disembodied voice or voices. In the same Internet article, Carroll cites the explanation for this tendency by Jim Alcock, a psychologist: “When our brains try to find patterns, they are guided in part by what we expect to hear. . . . People can clearly ‘hear’ voices and words not just in the context of muddled voices, but in a pattern of white noise in which there are no words at all.” It seems that, for these reasons, EVP is just as problematic as the proof of ghosts’ existence as eyewitness reports and photographs have been shown to be.

Perhaps the abrupt drop in temperature that some ghost hunters have both felt and recorded will prove more convincing evidence of the existence of the spirits of the dead. According to an anonymous “paranormal researcher,” who writes, in answer to a question posted on Yahoo! Answers, it is believed that such “cold spots” result from ghosts’ draining of energy sources, such as electricity, as a means to produce sounds or to speak. Supposedly, the energy they draw from the environment heats their own energy, but this heat is then dissipated by the sound effect the ghost produces with this borrowed energy. Neither this researcher nor any other seems able to explain how a disembodied spirit--that is, an entity that has no lips, teeth, tongue, vocal cords, or lungs--can speak, even if it does help itself to ambient energy sources. Once again, Carroll finds such evidence to be less than persuasive. In his Internet article, “ghost,” he notes that “many people report physical changes in haunted places, especially a feeling of a presence accompanied by temperature drop and hearing unaccountable sounds” and agreeing that such people “are not imagining things,” he, nevertheless, discounts the notion that ghosts are responsible for these phenomena. Instead, he says,

Scientists who have investigated haunted places account for both the temperature changes and the sounds by finding physical sources of the drafts, such as empty spaces behind walls or currents set in motion by low frequency sound waves (infrasound) produced by such mundane objects as extraction fans.
Sudden increases in electromagnetic radiation are “produced by such things as power lines, electric appliances, radio waves, and microwaves,” Carroll observes, in his Internet article “EMF (EMT).” Therefore, he adds, the idea that ghosts somehow cause such radiation seems unlikely, and, indeed, “some think that electromagnetic fields are inducing the haunting experience” (“ghost”).

Occasionally, as a Halloween feature, some newspapers or television shows spotlight a supposedly haunted house. The ghostly phenomena are described, and then a natural explanation is provided for each of the supposedly supernatural elements of the tale. One such account, by Cathy Lubenski, appeared under the title “When your house has spooks, who are you going to call” in The San Diego Union-Tribune. Her story included reports of slime oozing from walls, cold spots, lights flashing on and off, doors opening by themselves, knocking inside walls, foul odors, and howling. Were one living in a house in which such phenomena were occurring, it might well seem that the residence was indeed haunted. Instead, each of these phenomena had a natural cause, not a supernatural origin. The slime was from a bee’s nest in the attic; the cold spots resulted from an air-conditioner unit’s return airflow; the stench was an effect of dead rats in the wall and trapped sewer gas; the howling was the wind, blowing down a vent. Philosophers advise people to adopt the principle of Occam’s razor, which says, essentially, that one should never consider more possible causes than the number that are necessary to explain why something happens. As Carroll points out, “Occam’s razor is also called the principle of parsimony,” and “it is usually interpreted to mean something like ‘the simpler the explanation, the better’” or “as most people would put it today, ‘don’t make any more assumptions than you have to.’” To demonstrate the principle, Carroll offers this example: “[Erik] Von Däniken could be right: maybe extraterrestrials did teach ancient people art and engineering, but we don't need to posit alien visitations in order to explain the feats of ancient people.” Therefore, according to Occam’s razor, one should not attribute “art and engineering” to the human intelligence and ingenuity that men and women develop as the result of their evolutionary, genetic and environmental inheritance. The same applies, of course, with respect to ghosts. The fact that eye-witness reports, photographs, electronic voice phenomena, abrupt temperature drops, and sudden increases in electromagnetic radiation that have been cited as evidence for the existence of ghosts can be explained without reference to these supernatural entities, which are supposed to cause them, makes the actual existence of ghosts questionable at best. Therefore, one can conclude that it is more likely that ghosts do not exist than to suppose that they do. Nevertheless, some are likely to believe in them because they add mystery to the everydayness of ordinary life, they suggest that there is some sort of existence after death, and they make interesting literary and dramatic characters that enliven short stories, novels, and movies. Likewise, they are convenient symbols of such emotional and psychological states and experiences as guilt, the memory of traumatic past experiences, and of actual historical events. In the sense that human beings are, to some extent, products of their own previous experiences and of historical affairs, they are haunted, after all--by the ghosts of their pasts.

Works Cited

Carroll, Robert. "anecdotal (testimonial) evidence." The Skeptic's Dictionary. 23 Feb 2009. 22 May 2009.

---. "electronic voice phenomenon (EVP)." The Skeptic's Dictionary. 23 Feb 2009.

---. "EMF (EMR)." The Skeptic's Dictionary. 23 Feb 2009. 22 May 2009.

---. "ghost." The Skeptic’s Dictionary. 23 Feb 2009. 22 May 2009.

Lubenski, Cathy. "When your house has spooks, who are you going to call." The San Diego Union-Tribune 29 Oct 2000: C6. Print.

Randi, James. "spirit photography." An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural. 2007. James Randi Education Foundation. 22 May 2009

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Quick Tip: Redirect the Reader

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

I learned this trick from my sister, although, I suppose, other mothers and grandmothers may also know and use it. Certainly, mystery writers employ it. Authors of horror fiction may find the method useful, too.

I call it redirection.

Elsewhere, I’ve written about both misdirection (the use of red herrings and irony, dramatic, situational, or verbal, to frustrate readers’ expectations and keep them guessing) and indirection (the use of nonverbal, often figurative, means of communication to establish mood and intensify suspense). Redirection is different.

Here’s how a mother or a grandmother might use redirection. Little Johnny or Susie is angry or sad. To refocus his or her attention off of him- or herself or his or her predicament, mom or grandma refocuses the child’s attention, redirecting him or her to something else. “Why don’t we bake some cookies?” she might ask or suggest, “Let’s see what SpongeBob is up to!”

In mysteries, writers, especially when they are dropping clues or red herrings, often redirect their readers’ attention by focusing it upon a glamorous female character, having another character engage the protagonist in an offbeat or otherwise interesting conversation, creating a disturbance, or otherwise engaging the readers’ attention.

Horror story writers can benefit from employing redirection, too. For example, suppose one is offering a scientific explanation for a monster whose very nature or existence is of a paranormal or a supernatural character. Obviously, as such, its nature is beyond scientific explanation. The writer is caught between the rock of plausibility and unbelievably, so, soon after the scientific explanation begins (or ends), the writer could redirect the readers’ attention, perhaps by the arrival of the monster itself, a hysterical character who rushes in to announce that the monster has attacked and killed again, or an emergency communiqué from a government official.

Redirection works for mom. It works for grandma. It works for mystery writers. It will also work for authors of horror stories, including you.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Establishing Verisimilitude

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Imagine a woman sitting on her porch, reading a letter. Across a bed of bright petunias, she is being watched, but we do not see the watcher.

Who is this woman? Who wrote the letter, and what is in it? How does she react to its contents? Does she smile, laugh, sigh, weep, shake her head, nod, shrug?

Who is watching her? A man? A woman? Why is he or she watching the woman? Is the watcher a police detective? A mobster? A stalker? A secret protector? Does he or she mean the woman harm or good?

The answers to these questions (which will suggest additional questions) depends on the genre of the story that one is writing. Is it an action-adventure story? A detective or mystery story? Espionage? Fantasy? Romance? Science fiction? Western?

Or horror?

If it’s a horror story, the watcher could be either a predator or a protector. If a predator, it could be an alien (extraterrestrial), an animal, a demon, a ghost, a madman, a vampire, a werewolf, a witch, a zombie, or some other kind of monster, human or otherwise. Depending upon what kind of menace the watcher is, he, she (or it) may or many not respond to the woman’s reading of the letter and to her reaction to its contents.

Were I developing a plot about such a situation, I would opt to make the threat a human one or an intelligent entity, at least, because such an antagonist could respond to the situation, including the woman’s reaction to the letter, and if she is going to be described as reading and reacting to a letter, it would be seem desirable to the make the most of the emotional and dramatic potential of such a scene. Otherwise, why have her read a letter at all? She could just as easily be watched while she waters the flowers, takes a walk, or does any of a hundred other things. Therefore, my watcher must be one of the following: an alien, a demon, a madman, a vampire, or a witch (or, possibly, a ghost). Eliminated would be the animal, the werewolf, the zombie and any type of subhuman monster.

If, on the other hand, the watcher was the woman’s secret protector (secret because, if she know of him, he wouldn’t have to observe her from hiding), he (or she) would have to have a motive that seems feasible to readers. His or her role may or may not be related to the monstrous antagonist. If it is related, perhaps the protective character is a government agent, a demon hunter, a psychiatrist, a vampire slayer, a clergyman, or a ghost hunter or psychic. Obviously, if such were the case, this character would be present to protect the woman from the monster. Perhaps the protector’s awareness that the woman is due to receive a letter from a particular correspondent is the reason that he or she is watching the woman. Maybe the protector wants to see how the woman reacts to the letter’s contents (which, of course, implies that he or she is him- or herself aware of these contents).

The letter’s contents could be the device that links the three characters: the woman, the protector, and the antagonist. Does it announce the protector’s mission (to protect the woman) from a threatening entity (the antagonist)? Does it explain the true situation of which the woman is to play an integral part, a fact of which, until her reading of the letter, she has been unaware? Does the letter warn the woman of the monster that threatens her or will begin to threaten her, if it has not done so before? Could the woman be subject to a post-hypnotic command expressed in the letter she reads?

Why does the antagonist want to abduct or kill the woman? What is the antagonist’s motive for doing so? Is the villain acting alone or as part of a group?

The woman’s role in the situation must not be forgotten. In fact, it is likely that either she or the protective character is the story’s protagonist (unless there is no monster and the watcher is him- or herself the narrative’s antagonist). Was she expecting the letter she now reads or did it come to her out of the blue, as it were? Is the letter from a friend, a family member, an acquaintance, or a stranger? What does the letter say? Why does she react to its contents in the way that she does? Is her reaction appropriate or inappropriate to the news, and why? What else does the reader need to know about her? Is she single? Married? Separated? Divorced? Widowed? Does she work? Is she between jobs (“redundant,” as the British say)? Is she retired or independently wealthy? What predicament is she in? (She must be in some sort of predicament, of course, either now or very soon, for, as Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren point out in Understanding Fiction, “no conflict, no story.”)

Of course, the basic situation with which we started--that of a woman’s sitting on her porch, reading a letter while, across a bed of bright petunias, she is being watched by an unseen watcher--could be developed in several ways besides the one I set forth as an example, and the story would, as a result, develop differently in each case, but, by linking the woman, the antagonist, and the watchful protector through the letter, we attain coherence among the characters, which establishes both a sense of narrative logic and believability, or a sense of verisimilitude, as writers and critics--mostly critics--are fond of saying.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Quick Tip: Remind the Reader

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Most longer fiction occasionally pauses in the presentation of its action to summarize what has gone before, thereby refreshing readers’ memories as to the narrative’s previous events. Journey to the West (published in the West as Monkey), The Song of Roland, and even Hamlet and other Shakespearean plays use this technique. In the days of ancient Greek dramas, the chorus reminded audiences of what had happened in the previous parts of the play, as did the protagonist and other characters, through monologues).

Horror novels are no exception. Their authors also pause from time to time to remind their readers of what they’ve read. Occasionally, such summaries can be used to misdirect the reader, suggesting that a plot is leading toward a particular denouement (or catastrophe, if the story is to be a tragedy) rather than the one in which it actually will be resolved.

On page 210 of his 386-page page-turner, The Vanishing, Bentley Little takes time out to remind his reader, through dialogue between two newspaper reporters, as to what is occurring, with increasing frequency, throughout the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area:

Wilson swallowed. “I suppose. . . we have a California-based phenomenon that causes heretofore sane and sensible individuals to go on murderous killing sprees and/or commit suicide in unusually violent ways. It’s accompanied by unusual plant growth and primarily affects the wealthy. . . . And it’s been occurring off and on for well over a century.”

(The plot sounds somewhat like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, but, trust me, Little’s novel is way better than Shyamalan’s movie [although it’s certainly not the author’s best work]).

Little’s summary suggests that whatever the hell is going on in The Vanishing has something to do with “unusual plant growth,” which, elsewhere (on page 124, to be exact), he describes in generally malevolent terms:

His gaze moved on to the surrounding grounds. The damn place was overgrown with vegetation. This was the fourth landscaping service he’d hired just this year and it looked like he’d have to find yet another one. He’d explained to Gary Martinez, the owner of the business, how he wanted the property maintained, but either he hadn’t properly communicated with his employees or the landscapers who worked for him were incompetent. Whatever the reason, the area around the house looked like
hell. . . .

Does the “phenomenon” really have anything to do with these plants, though, or does Little only want his story’s readers to assume that it does? In other words, is Little purposely misleading his readers so that, in the end, he can switch directions, surprising his fans? I don’t know, because I haven’t read the entire novel yet. However, Little has led me to believe that there may be such a connection. Either there is one, or he’s purposely misleading me through misdirection.

Time will tell.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Imagined Horrors

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

And much of Madness, and more of Sin,
And Horror the soul of the plot.

-- Edgar Allan Poe, "The Conqueror worm"

Edgar Allan Poe’s stories are tales of madness and, quite often, murder. In many of them, the protagonist’s insanity is evident in his perceptions and thoughts, which tend toward the hallucinatory. In listening in on their musings, as it were, readers understand that their notions are irrational. A famous case in point: “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which begins with the admission that there is nothing wrong with the character of the man whom the narrator-protagonist would kill; his victim’s error is not in his ways, but in a physical--indeed, a facial--feature: the injured party’s offense, such as it is, is in the eye of the mad beholder:

It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain, but, once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this! One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture--a pale blue eye with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me my blood ran cold, and so by degrees, very gradually, I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye for ever.

Likewise, in “The Cask of Amontillado,” the narrator-protagonist informs the reader that he is about to avenge himself for an “insult” that he, the protagonist, claims he has recently suffered at the hands of his intended victim, Fortunato. The protagonist paints himself as a longsuffering man, but as one for whom patience in the face of longstanding, ongoing abuse has finally reached its end: “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.”

As readers, we observe that the avenger never specifically identifies any of the “thousand injuries” he has suffered at the hands of Fortunato, possibly because he cannot do so, since these slights and injuries, in fact, never happened except in his own mind. Likewise, we see that he has plotted his revenge upon the unfortunate Fortunato, presumably for some time, and according to a principle:

AT LENGTH I would be avenged; this was a point definitively settled--but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish, but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.
The avenger has a powerful intellect, but his use of reason is perverted by his madness. He is careful to ensure that his vengeance goes undetected and, therefore, unpunished, as, he says, a proper act of vengeance must; a sane man would not suppose that vengeance be perpetuated according to a code or standard.

As readers, we also notice that the protagonist does not confront his intended victim with his allegation that Fortunato has in some way “ventured upon insult.” He does not give his acquaintance the opportunity, as it were, to defend himself or explain his actions. Like a husband who murders, rather than divorces, his wife, the protagonist, rather than confront his longstanding acquaintance or break off his friendship with him, decides to murder him and, indeed, takes pains to pretend that all remains well between them: “It must be understood that neither by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile NOW was at the thought of his immolation.”

No doubt, the protagonist’s pretense is designed to keep the unsuspecting Fortunato unsuspecting and to permit the avenger to carry out his vengeance with “impunity,” but it also shows the apparently rational man to be utterly irrational and the supposedly injured protagonist to be injurious, indeed. Again, the fault does not appear to lie in the character or behavior of the victim, but in the thought processes, or reasoning, of the mad protagonist.

Other of Poe’s stories, such as “The Black Cat,” are constructed on the basis of the same premise: an unreliable (because mad) narrator tells a story about his own past criminal conduct and, in the process, exposes his madness.

Poe’s method is still used by writers today, who depict similar madmen (and women) whose telling of their stories depict them as insane and whose madness is itself the source of the twisted perceptions or understandings that give rise to the acts of violence and murder that they commit. (Charlotte Gilman Perkins’ “The Yellow Wallpaper” and H. G. Wells’ “The Red Room” are masterful examples of more recent stories that depend upon their protagonist’s hallucinatory or mistaken perceptions and understandings.)

Such an approach suggests that, to an insane person, anything can be considered wrong, perverse, or threatening because the horror is not in the things themselves, or the world, but in themselves. It has been truly said that one’s perceptions are, to the one who experiences them, realities, even if they are mistaken or, indeed, entirely the products of their own psychoses.

For example, why does that light flicker so, in the dead of the night? What must it be thinking? What is it trying to communicate, so fervently ands insistently, and why?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Tip Top: Mutual Admiration Lists--Useful or Self-Indulgent?

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Most readers (and writers, for that matter) have a short list of the novels they have most enjoyed, the best of the best, so to speak, or “the top ten.” Of course, these lists differ from one person to another, because we all have our own likes and dislikes, our own interests, biases, values, beliefs, and concerns. We also have different levels of sophistication as readers--and different backgrounds.

Any list of the “best” or the “top” novels in the horror, or any other, genre is necessarily subjective. There may even be someone (besides M. Night Shyamalan himself, I mean) who enjoyed his dreadful movie, The Happening.

Despite the idiosyncratic nature of such lists, perusing them, especially if they are annotated by their creators with the reasons that the novel is on the list (that is, why the lost maker listed the book), can be instructive for writers who write with their readers’ interests in mind. On his blog, Antibacterial Pope, Nick Cato offers such a list, citing the following as the best of the best for the past year, in “My Top Ten HORROR Novels of 2009”:

1. Blue Canoe by Tim Wright
2. His Father’s Son by Bentley Little
3. Cursed by Jeremy A. Shipp
4. This entry is missing for some reason.
5. Far Dark Fields by Gary A. Braunbeck
6. Afraid by Jack Kilborn
7. Depraved by Bryan Smyth
8. As Fate Would Have It by Michael Louis Calvillo
9. Sacrifice by John Everson
10. Orphan’s Triumph by Robert Buettner

Except in general terms, I won’t identify the reasons that Cato considers these books the best of the best for 2009; you can visit his webpage for that information. In general, though, he cites their credible characters, innovative perspective, cross-genre content, philosophical musings, action, intensity of pace, suspense, gore, and, of course, frightening fare.

Michael Marshall Smith has also offered a “top 10 horror books” (apparently, of the “of all time” type) list:

1. Dark Feasts by Ramsey Campbell
2. Pet Sematary by Stephen King
3. Ghost Story by Peter Straub
4. Dead Babies by Martin Amis
5. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
6. Night Shift by Stephen King
7. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
8. The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson
9. At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft
10. Best New Horror (edited) by Stephen Jones

In general, Smith cites such criteria for his judgments as “disturbing.” storylines, cross-genre content, setting, creepiness, atmosphere, psychological realism, style, and variety.

Not to be outdone, I have likewise offered my own lists, both of what I consider the top ten horror movies of all time (“Toppers”) , “Horror Story Failures” and “Ideas That Don’t Work” and a list of horror novels that I believe should be on everyone’s “Contemporary Horror Fiction Bookshelf.”

There’s no need, of course, to rehash my views here. Anyone who’s interested in them can peruse my previous posts easily enough and decide whether they are the perceptions of genius or imbecility (that is, whether he or she agrees or disagrees with them).

The important point is to identify what other readers and writers like. By doing so, you, as a writer, can address these concerns and interests in your own fiction, increasing its relevance to others and, perhaps, your work’s sales appeal as well.

I’m not suggesting pandering, but a meeting of the hearts and minds or readers and write, when possible, in the pages of your novels. In many cases, you are apt to find that we all like pretty much the same sorts of things; the horror genre is, after all, a genre, and genres appeal to specific audiences or communities who share similar views, interests, and concerns.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Quick Tip: Connect the Nouns

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

In school, we’re taught that a noun is a word that names a person, place, thing, quality, or idea. In a scene, a writer should connect each of these types of nouns to one another so that, together, they create a unified effect:

Person = Character
Place = Setting
Thing = Property (“Prop”) or Figure of Speech
Quality = Atmosphere or Emotion
Idea = Theme.

Here’s an example, courtesy of Bentley Little’s novel The Vanishing:

It was a muggy day in Manhattan [place], and Kirk [person] spent most of it in his apartment [place], sitting in his desk chair listening to the stack of CDs [thing] he’d bought the day before. But, by late afternoon, even he was tired of sitting on his ass. His mom had just returned from a two-week trip to France, and he’d promised to stop by and see her, so he took a shower, put on some clothes his parents wouldn’t find too offensive and made his way uptown to their building. He was happy [quality] to see his mother again. It was embarrassing [quality] to admit, but he’d missed her. Mama’s boy, he chided himself [idea].
This approach makes even a short paragraph seem as if it is telling a story. Little uses this technique frequently in the course of his novels, the scenes reading like anecdotes, or miniature stories, which serve other such purposes as characterizing his characters, developing atmosphere, expressing mood, developing conflict, locating action, and expressing themes, while, at the same time, both individually and collectively, they move the greater narrative forward. It’s a sound approach, built upon connecting words that refer to persons, places, things, qualities, and ideas.

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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