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Saturday, July 17, 2010

Medicine for Melancholy “Under the Dome”

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Andy Sanders goes to the Holy Redeemer Church to notify Phil (“The Chef”) Bushey that his wife, Samantha, committed suicide after killing two police officers. The selectman makes no mention of the fact that the police officers were responsible for her beating and rape: “even in his grief” over the loss of his daughter wife Claudette and his daughter Dorothy (“Dodee”), “Andy had no intention of bringing up the rape accusation” (670). Instead, Andy tells The Chef that Samantha probably killed the special deputies because “she was upset about the Dome” (670). They discuss the methamphetamine operation in which they have been involved with Big Jim Rennie, the late (murdered Reverend Lester Coggins), and others. The Chef shares Andy’s opinion that selling the illegal drug is wrong, although, The Chef says, making it “is God’s will” because “meth is medicine for melancholy” (670). The Chef invites the selectman to accompany him, saying “I’m going to change your life” (671).

In this scene, King offers some insights into the character of Andy Sanders. Like most of the town’s other power brokers, Andy is evil, despite his affable manner and his facile optimism. His evil lies in his willingness to go along to get along. Andy has few moral values. Andy explains to The Chef that, although Samantha has killed herself, all is not lost for The Chef, for his son by Samantha, Little Walter, survives. The omniscient narrator informs the reader that “even in his despair, Andy Sanders was a glass-half-full person” (669). Such optimism may seem admirable at first, but, upon consideration, it is superficial, given the circumstances (a double murder followed by a suicide and the leaving of a motherless child behind). His insistence upon seeing the good as well as the bad in this case is condescending; it is also evasive. Evil demands to be seen for what it is, without sugarcoating it by considering other, peripheral facts or incidents. It is good that Little Walter is “fine,” but his wellbeing has no real bearing upon Samantha’s having been beaten and raped or her murder of her attackers, followed by her suicide. Furthermore, Andy’s willingness to follow Big Jim’s lead, even when his colleague proposes or commits immoral or criminal acts results, in large measure, from Andy’s eagerness to please others--in this instance, Big Jim. One suspects that Andy likes to please others because doing so is the least demanding alternative; certainly, it would be much easier than standing up to as brash and bold a person as Big Jim.

The reader isn’t made privy to whether or not Andy was a good husband or a good father, but chances are that he was as agreeable to Claudette as he was permissive to Dodee, because Andy’s defining characteristics are his easygoingness, affability, and eagerness to please. Had he taken a stand more often, he probably wouldn’t have come to the bitter end in which he finds himself as a childless widower who has become the political rubber stamp for, and a criminal cohort of, Big Jim. His life’s choices and lack of principled action, his going along to get along, has brought him to a state of despair in which he was prepared to commit suicide, as his daughter did (albeit nonviolently, with pills, rather than with a handgun, which was Dodee‘s method of choice); to the point at which he must tell The Chef that he “can’t say” whether he wants The Chef to kill him; and to the point at which, it seems, he may be willing for The Chef to “change” his life (by introducing him to the sweet release of methamphetamine). In short, Andy Sanders is weak, both morally and in willpower. Being weak is not in itself evil, perhaps, but it becomes evil when it ends in the course of action that Andy has chosen for himself and, as a public official, indirectly for the people of the town he helps to govern.

For the same reason, The Chef is evil He cares about Samantha not because he loved her or even because he was married to her, but because she was proficient in making love “when she was stoned” (670). Even the news that his infant son is “fine” means nothing to him. When Andy gives him “the comforting news that ‘the child’ was fine,” “Chef “waved away Little Walter’s wellbeing” (669). During their talk, as they get high, The Chef connects Halloween to the second coming of Christ, providing a possible link (albeit a vague one) to the hallucinations the town’s children had while they were experiencing seizures, presumably due to the influence of the dome.

After smoking meth, Andy drives The Chef to the hospital, where he retrieves the body of his wife, taking it back to the Holy Redeemer Church, where he believes Jesus will make his return on Halloween, raising Samantha from the dead. Confused as the result of his long-term, hallucinatory addiction to methamphetamine, The Chef also says that he himself is “coming as Jesus,” on Halloween, and, as such, he adds, he is “pissed” (673).

Deputy Jackie Wettington resolves to break Colonel Dale (“Barbie”) Barbara out of jail the next night, and she delivers this message to him in a bowl of cereal. Later, Second Selectman Big Jim Rennie visits Barbie, trying to persuade him into signing a false confession, admitting to the beatings, rapes, and murders with which he is charged. Instead, Barbie informs Big Jim that he is aware of, and has evidence to prove, that Big Jim has been involved in the manufacture and distribution of methamphetamine on a grand scale. If Big Jim waterboards Barbie to extract the confession , as the selectman threatens to do, Barbie will implicate him in this illegal activity and divulge the location of the files that former Police Chief Howard (“Duke”) Perkins had compiled concerning the selectman’s criminal activity. Their meeting ends in a stalemate.

This scene reminds the reader of the flimsiness of the plot in regard to Barbie’s continued incarceration. More clear than ever, to Big Jim, is the threat that Barbie poses. It seems obviously wiser for Big Jim to have his prisoner shot as Barbie supposedly seeks to escape from custody than it is to allow his existence to continue to threaten the selectman. Wagering that he can bring matters to a close with a trial in which the innocent Barbie can be convicted and sentenced to death is a risk that is both foolish and unnecessary to take. Indeed, King’s omniscient narrator suggests as much in sharing Barbie’s thoughts on the matter with the reader: “He [Big Jim] left. They all left. Barbie sat on his bunk, sweating. He knew how close to the edge he was. Rennie had reasons to keep him alive, but not strong ones . . .” (686).

Another point that bothers the reader is the fact that, for someone whose past includes, as the novel hints, special operations experience, hand-to-hand fighting and probably martial arts instruction, and survivalist training, Barbie seems to be a rather passive protagonist. Although he was able to hold his own in a vicious street fight with Frank DeLesseps, Junior Rennie, Melvin Searles, and Carter Thibodeau in the parking lot of Dipper’s, the local discotheque, he has been a prisoner in the Chester’s Mill police station since page 533. Other than managing to hide his pocket knife inside his mattress and drinking from his toilet bowl, Barbie has done nothing but receive beatings, threats, and insults while the other townspeople go about the business of helping one another and seeking a way to shut off the generator that, they believe, has created and sustains the dome. One of the female deputies, Jackie Wettington, is willing to risk her own life to free Barbie, but Barbie, for his own part, is able to do nothing more than wait to be rescued. It seems unlikely that such a man would be the choice of the president of the United States to take charge of the situation under the dome, as the novel’s fictional version of Barrack Hussein Obama has done--unless, of course, the president wants Barbie to fail for political purposes of his own. Is the United States itself behind the appearance of the dome, as some of the citizens of Chester’s Mill believe? Another possibility is that Barbie himself has secret plans that necessitate his continued incarceration, but, even if he does, his imprisonment doesn’t depend upon him, but upon Big Jim Rennie, who controls the town, including the police and his incarceration is, therefore, undependable. Indeed, Big Jim has more reason, it seems, to kill Barbie than to keep him in jail. In any case, Barbie’s passivity becomes itself not only annoying but hard to believe. If his continued incarceration does have a purpose beyond Jim Rennie’s hope to conduct a “show trial,” King should provide a few hints, in the interest of verisimilitude, by way of foreshadowing; that he doesn’t do so suggests that there is no such plan.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Todorov:

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

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

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

My Cup of Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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