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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Knowledge, Ignorance, Surprises, and Suspense "Under the Dome"

Copyright 2020 by Gary L. Pullman


Earlier in the story, flowers that one of Linda and Rusty Everett’s daughters, Judy and Janelle, picked for their mother were dying, and now “the twin oaks in their front yard” apparently are dying as well, their “leaves hanging limp and moveless [sic], their bright colors fading to drab brown” (691). Like the fauna (and the human population, some members of which have had seizures and hallucinations and others of which appear to be going insane), even the flora under the dome is being adversely affected by the pollution-gathering barrier. The suggestion is that, if the dome remains in place much longer, cutting off the town from the rest of both nature and civilization, the consequences will be dire, indeed, for plants, animals, and human beings alike.

The evil spread by Big Jim Rennie and his cohorts is also having dire effects upon the people of Chester’s Mill. Two citizens, Angie McCain and Dodee Sanders, have been killed by Junior Rennie, and two others, the Reverend Lester Coggins and Brenda Perkins, have been killed by Big Jim himself. Several townspeople were injured, some seriously, during the riot at, and looting of, Food Town. Samantha Bushey, beaten and raped by Special Deputies Frank DeLesseps, Melvin Searles, and Carter Thibodeau, while Special Deputy Georgia Roux assists by holding the victim down and urging her colleagues on, shoots two of them (Frank and Georgia) before killing herself with the same handgun and leaving her eighteen-month-old son Little Walter a virtual orphan, given the indifference and madness of his methamphetamine-addicted father, Phil (“The Chef”). The descent of the dome has killed several animals and human beings as well, including Claudette Sanders, the late wife of First Selectman Andy Sanders and the father of the late Dodee. Rory Dinsmoore’s ill-advised attempt to shoot his way through the dome with a high-powered rifle cost him first an eye and then his life.

Adding to the horror of these deaths is the townspeople’s ignorance as to the cause of the dome and its descent and of the cause of the madness that grips some of the townspeople (The Chef, Junior, and Big Jim himself, among others). One cannot fight what one does not understand, and the inability to protect and defend oneself and others increases one’s sense of helplessness and desperation.

So far, the protagonist, Colonel Dale (“Barbie”) Barbara (jailed since page 533), and his supporters have discovered little of the truth behind the bizarre events that have transpired and continue to transpire in their town. Joe McClatchey and his friends Norrie Calvert and Benny Drake, using a Geiger counter supplied to them by Barbie before Barbara was jailed, have located what they believe may be the generator that created and sustains the dome. Physician’s assistant Rusty Everett, in having examined the bodies of the Reverend Lester Coggins and Brenda Perkins, surmises that the former was struck by a baseball and that the latter’s neck was broken. The former chief of police and Brenda’s late husband, Howard (“Duke”) Perkins, an early victim of the dome, has compiled a file of incriminating evidence concerning Big Jim’s theft of public funds and manufacture and distribution of methamphetamine. The townspeople also know that neither the direct hit of a pair of Cruise missiles nor the dousing of the dome with an experimental acid capable of melting solid rock had any effect on the barrier. In addition, they have a few fairly strong suspicions about some of the strange incidents that have happened since the dome’s descent. They suspect that Big Jim organized the Food Town riot as an excuse seize more power for himself and to further bolster the ranks of Chester’s Mill’s finest. They suspect that he is behind the arson that resulted in the burning down of newspaper owner and editor Julia Shumway’s business and residence. They suspect that Big Jim has framed Barbie for the murders of his and Junior’s victims. Samantha Bushey identified Frank DeLesseps, Melvin Searles, Carter Thibodeau, and Georgia Roux as her attackers, although they denied her allegations and have never been charged, arrested, or tried.

That’s what, to date, the townspeople know or suspect. They don’t know the origin or the nature of the dome, although there are plenty of theories as to how it came to be and who may be responsible for its descent. Some believe it is the work of extraterrestrials. Others think it is the result of a terrorist attack by a rogue nation. Still others suspect that the United States put the dome in place, using its own citizens as subjects of a sinister experiment. Perhaps the dome is the invention of a criminal genius, some suppose, or a living entity, others imagine.

Once again, the characters’ partial knowledge and total ignorance, coupled with rumors and suspicions (some founded, some not) increase their fear and sense of helplessness while, at the same time, heightening the story’s suspense.

But King also arouses the reader’s suspense by extending the population of the town in an unusual manner. In an earlier scene, King surprises the reader by including the dead among the living in his catalogue of the townspeople of Chester’s Mill who did not witness the phenomenon of the falling pink stars, as if he were suddenly writing a sequel to Our Town or Spoon River Anthology. The effect is startling, and shows that, even after all these years, King can surprise his readers.

Now, in a scene out of The Sixth Sense, one of his characters--and a canine one, at that--Horace, Julia Shumway’s Corgi, hears a voice as he eats popcorn spilled by Andrea Grinnell, with whom Horace and Julia are staying, following the loss of Julia’s home and business to the Molotov cocktails tossed by Big Jim’s henchmen. As the dog is eating the spilled popcorn he has found under an end table, he encounters the file of incriminating evidence against Big Jim Rennie that the late Police Chief Perkins had gathered. His widow, Brenda, at Barbie’s behest, had taken it to the third selectman for safekeeping. Andrea, in seeking to kick her addiction to pain pills cold turkey, had promptly forgotten her visitor’s visit. Apparently, both Andrea and Julia have also forgotten the file itself (since neither of them mentions it again or looks for it.) As Horace comes across the file, however, he hears the voice:

. . . Horace was actually standing on his mistress’ name (printed in the late Brenda Perkins’s neat hand) and hoovering up the first bits of a surprisingly rich treasure trove, when Andrea and Julia walked back into the living room.

A woman said, Take that to her.

Horace looked up, his ears pricking. That was not Julia or the other woman [Andrea]; it was a deadvoice [sic]. Horace, like all dogs, heard dead voices [sic] quite often, and
sometimes saw their owners. The dead were all around, but living people saw them
no more than they could smell most of the ten thousand aromas that surrounded
them every minute of every day.

Take that to Julia, she needs it, it’s hers (694).
Unfortunately, Horace is confused, thinking (yes, King’s mutts are quite good at cognitive activity, in their own doggy way, much as are the canines that frequent rival writer Dean Koontz’s cloyingly sentimental fiction), and the Corgi, able to distinguish between “peoplefood” [sic] and “floorfood” [sic], thinks that it is “ridiculous” to imagine that Julia would. . . eat anything that had been in his mouth,” and, in his confusion, the misplaced file remains undiscovered--at least, by the human characters--and Horace himself forgets “all about the dead voice [sic]” (695).

Why does King include this scene? Is it simply to remind the reader of the file’s existence and that it is still available to the enemies of Big Jim Rennie? If so, there are other, simpler and more expedient ways to accomplish this end. In fact, King has reminded the reader of the file’s existence, if not its specific location, several times already, through characters’ dialogue concerning the file. Obviously, King does not want the file to be discovered yet, because Julia was about to do just this when she turned away from the end table under which it lies, concerned about Andrea as the selectman began to make gagging sounds, prior to regurgitating her morning’s “raisin bun”:

She bent to look into the gap between the couch and the wall.

Before she could, the other woman began to make a gagging
noise. . . (695).
If the purpose of the scene isn’t for Julia to find the file, why did King write it? Why did he bring forth the ghost of Brenda Perkins to tell Horace to take the file to Julia? In regard to the answers to such questions, the reader, at this point, is left hanging, so to speak, but King has certainly raised the question as to why he has deliberately emphasized, once again, as he had in including the dead among the living in his listing of the names of those residents of Chester’s Mill who had not seen the fall of pink stars, a link between the living and the dead. He deliberately introduces an element of the supernatural when such an intrusion is not necessary to the telling of his story and is, in fact, even a bit disconcerting, requiring, as it does, yet an additional suspension of disbelief, beyond that needed to accept the sudden dropping down of a mysterious, transparent “dome“ over an entire town. In doing so, he sets up the expectation that, sooner or later, this connection between the living and the dead of Chester’s Mill will have narrative (and, perhaps, thematic) significance. Of course, in setting up the reader’s expectation that he will deliver on his implied promise to account for this link between the quick and the dead, King also generates a ton of suspense.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Todorov:

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

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

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

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My Cup of Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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