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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Morality “Under the Dome”

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman


Stephen King has been writing for a long time. His first novel, Carrie, was published in 1974. A natural-born storyteller, King has also learned a multitude of storytelling tricks over the years. I’ve mentioned a few already, in previous posts concerning Under the Dome. Here’s another: misdirection, or what I like to call the bait-and-switch technique.

Car dealers like Big Jim Rennie know and practice this trick, offering a limited number of low-price new cars to the public but announcing, when potential customers arrive, that all these vehicles have been sold; however, for just a little more (usually thousands of dollars), the dealership can put the buyer in a similar car. The low-price model is the bait; the switch occurs when the dealer offers to sell a different model for a higher price.

The bait-and-switch scene in Under the Dome to which I refer takes place shortly after the riot at Food Town (the “food fight,” as I like to call it). (Incidentally, the reader learned that the purpose of the riot was to provide the basis for beefing up the town’s police force by as many as eight additional special deputies; Big Jim wants his own well-armed militia, just as President Obama has called for his own private civilian police force, which, the president says, should be as well armed as the U. S. military.) During the riot, one of the thugs who works for Big Jim threw a rock that smashed Georgia Roux’s jaw and knocked out a quarter of her teeth. Torie McDonald collected the teeth and took them to Dr. Joe Boxer, the only dentist in Chester’s Mill, hoping that he could reimplant them. However, Joe, who works strictly on a cash basis, refuses to cooperate, unless he’s paid in advance, as always, for his services, even though he was just treated free of charge by physician’s assistant Rusty Everett for minor injuries that he’d sustained during the food fight. Joe is more concerned with getting home so he can stash the basketful of frozen waffles he’s stolen from the supermarket during the looting of the store than he is with helping a fellow resident of Chester’s Mill. Rusty, Colonel Dale (“Barbie”) Barbara, and high school history teacher Chaz Bender try to persuade Joe to perform the operations, even to the point of threatening him with violence. This incident comprises the bait portion of the bait-and-switch scene. The reader expects to see this conflict through to its conclusion, looking forward to seeing whether and how Rusty, Barbie, and Chaz persuade Joe to do the right thing.

The switch portion occurs as Chief Peter Randolph, accompanied by Deputies Freddy Denton, Jackie Wettington, and Linda Everett and Special Deputies Junior Rennie, Frank DeLesseps, Carter Thibodeau (the last two of whom are among the same men who, assisted by Georgia Roux, beat and raped Samantha Bushey) arrive, weapons drawn, to arrest Barbie--seven police officers to arrest one man! To prevent his being killed for “resisting arrest,” Barbie immediately raises his hands, surrendering, and keeps them raised even after Thibodeau charges forward and punches the captive in the stomach, doubling him over. The chief announces, “I’m arresting you for the murders of Angela McCain, Dorothy Sanders, Lester A. Coggins, and Brenda Perkins.” Angela and Dorothy (“Dodee”) were killed by Junior; Lester and Brenda, by Junior’s father, Second Selectman Big Jim Rennie, but Barbie is being framed for their murders. The colonel had anticipated his arrest on one trumped-up charge or another, although it is doubtful that he suspected he’d be taken into custody for the murders of four individuals.

The use of situational irony, which is what the bait-and-switch technique really amounts to, takes the reader by surprise enhancing the effect of the follow-on situation that is presented in lieu of the one that the initial situation suggests will occur. In this scene, King demonstrates that he is adroit at its use. So completely has he drawn the reader into the conflict between Joe, Rusty, Barbie, and Chaz, concerning the replacement of Georgia’s teeth that the reader is unprepared for the arrival and arrest of Barbie by Chester’s Mill’s finest (although Barbie himself has foreshadowed this incident several times well before this scene takes place).

As I mentioned in a previous post, the central theme of this novel seems to be provided in a quotation of Jimi Hendrix: “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.” I also mentioned King’s tendency to divide his characters into two camps, so that there is a dichotomy of “us” against “them.” Often, in the past, such dualities have consisted of children vs. adults, of Democrats vs. Republicans, of women vs. men, of religious folk vs. secular folk, and although some such divisions continue in Under the Dome, King’s latest novel shows a maturation of his thinking concerning politics, religion, and social issues. He seems to have come to an understanding that the world is not so easily divisible into good and evil, right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable. He seems to have developed a broader, deeper view of life, in which even a Republican like Julia Shumway can be heroic; where adults can recognize children’s talents and treat them as individuals rather than as pesky stereotypes; where religious faith need not be grotesque and absurd; and where men and women, despite the battle of the sexes, can battle alongside one another, for either good or evil.

In the past, King has largely defined evil as a threat to the community. Many of his novels, from ’Salem’s Lot onward, have an invasion plot, in which the menace arrives from outside, to infect and corrupt a small town which, although not perfect, not Eden, has been, nevertheless, a good place to raise one’s children or in which to grow up. In Under the Dome, the evil doesn’t come from outside; the evil is already in Chester’s Mill, chiefly in the form of Big Jim Rennie, but in many others as well, including his son Junior; Pete Randolph, Deputy Frank Denton, and their special deputies Georgia Roux, Frank DeLesseps, Melvin Searles, Carter Thibodeau; in the drug addict Phil Bushey (“The Chef”) who abandoned his wife Samantha and their child Little Walter; in the apathetic dentist, Joe Boxer; and in Big Jim’s fellow selectmen, Andy Sanders and, to a lesser degree, the pain pills-addicted Andrea Grinnell. Through these individuals, King defines, or redefines, evil. Evil is a love of power, such as afflicts Big Jim Rennie. Evil is bullying others, a pastime, with fatal consequences, enjoyed by Junior Rennie and his cronies. Evil is Phil Bushey’s abandonment of his wife and son. Evil is emotional, physical, and sexual assault, such as Frank DeLesseps, Melvin Searles, Carter Thibodeau, with Georgia Roux’s assistance, committed against Samantha Bushey. Evil is siding with evil because it benefits oneself, as both Andy
Sanders and the Reverend Lester Coggins do in cooperating with Big Jim in his political and criminal undertakings. Evil is Joe Boxer’s callous indifference to human suffering, unless, of course, the one who is suffering can pay up front and in cash for Joe’s dental services. Evil is the love for power or self-aggrandizement, which frustrates the power of love.

At the end of the bait-and-switch scene, one of King’s characters summarizes the distinction between good and evil that is foundational to Under the Dome, and the difference is entirely pragmatic, even, perhaps, quantifiable at times. Goodness is helping others; evil is hurting others. Although philosophers, theologians, and social scientists may argue about what it means, exactly, to help someone else and what it means, exactly, to hurt someone else (can perceived help really be harmful, for example, as when one enables another person to remain in a condition, such as alcoholism or drug addiction, that is injurious to his or her health?) and whether, to help someone else, it may be necessary to also hurt him or her (as dentists and physicians must hurt patients on occasion in order to treat them), King’s distinction, voiced by Rusty Everett, concerning Barbie’s medical treatments of wounded rioters and looters, seems a good starting point for such a basic understanding of morality:

[Deputy Linda Everett says, to her husband, physician’s assistant Eric, or “Rusty,”] “Four people, Eric--didn’t you hear? He killed them, and he almost certainly raped at least two of the women. I helped take them out of the hearse at Bowie’s. I saw the stains.”

Rusty shook his head. “I just spent the morning with him, watching him help people, not hurt them” (526).
Perhaps, in this exchange, King suggests another instance of evil. Linda is confronted with two versions of Barbie: helpful or hurtful. The former is supported by the testimony of her husband, a physician’s assistant whose dedication to the community is unquestioned, if not unquestionable. The other version, that of the hurtful Barbie, is supported by the allegations of Chief Randolph and the likes of Special Deputy Frank DeLesseps, and Junior Rennie. The only evidence specified against Barbie is the discovery of his Army “dog tags in Angie McCain’s hand.” The evidence is enough to convince Linda, but not enough to persuade Rusty, who finds their discovery in the hand of one of Barbie’s alleged victims “convenient.” The willingness or unwillingness to believe allegations against someone is a matter of faith, and the conclusions to which one comes concerning such allegations is often a matter of choice rooted in human understanding, or in the understanding of human nature, and there is yet another of King’s divisions of “us” and “them” involved in this matter, as a brief discussion--or debate--between Linda and Rusty, as Barbie is being “hustled out to the Chief’s car and locked in the backseat with his hands still cuffed behind him,” makes clear:

She stopped. “What’s wrong with you?”

“What’s wrong with you? Did you miss what just happened here?”

“Rusty, she was holding his dog tags!”

He nodded slowly. “Convenient, wouldn’t you say?”

Her face, which had been both hurt and hopeful, now froze. She seemed to notice that her arms were still held out to him, and she lowered them.

“Four people,” she said, “three beaten almost beyond recognition. There are sides, and you need to think about which one you’re on.”

“So do you, honey,” Rusty said (527).
Although some of King’s dualistic divisions are more superficial than others and are based upon stereotypes, the moral distinction he makes at the end of his bait-and-switch scene stands out as one that is profound. Although not entirely free of difficulties and more or less debatable, his stance that one can determine good from evil based upon whether a person’s behavior is helpful or harmful to others is worthy of serious thought, as is his suggestion that choice itself, including the choice to believe or to disbelieve the potentially injurious allegations that people make against others as an action which can be hurtful and, therefore, evil, if it is based upon deceit, ignorance, naiveté, the need to please others, self-aggrandizement, an uncritical acceptance of others’ statements or evidence, or any of a number of other false foundations, is good or evil. The surety for such decisions, King suggests, is not merely knowledge of the facts (or alleged facts), the evidence, as it were, but also of the person. Linda is wrong to believe that Barbie is guilty of murder and rape because of the (planted) evidence she’s made aware of, whereas Rusty is right to believe in Barbie’s innocence, despite such “evidence,” for he has worked alongside the man and has seen, with his own eyes, Barbie’s compassion, courage, and commitment to helping, not hurting, others.

As is often the case with King’s fiction, there is much more to the action than a moment’s chill or thrill. What King’s chief rival, Dean Koontz, says, not about Under the Dome, and not about morality, but about the exercise of the intellect, is true of human behavior in general and, as King indicates, helps to separate good from evil and right from wrong: “Some people think only intellect counts: knowing how to solve problems, knowing how to get by, knowing how to identify an advantage and seize it. But the functions of intellect are insufficient without courage, love, friendship, compassion and empathy.”

2 comments:

lazlo azavaar said...

Excellent, excellent post, Gary.
I think another reason for Rusty's disregard of the "evidence" against Barbie is that he realizes that the source of said evidence is unworthy of trust.

Gary L. Pullman said...

Yes, that's a good observation, Lazlo. Glad you enjoyed the post. (I see I missed some typos and mistakes, which I plan to correct.)

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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