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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Party Politics “Under the Dome”

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

For quite a few pages, ever since Joe McClatchey, Norrie Calvert, and Benny Drake discovered what they (and physician’s assistant Rusty Everett) believe is the dome generator, King has been building suspense concerning the device. Finally, Rusty not only sees it firsthand, but conducts a couple of tentative experiments with it. The device is odd: although the radiation level has been just shy of the danger zone all the way up Black Ridge, from McCoy’s Orchard, the Geiger counter now reads the threat as zero, and the condition of a hale and hearty squirrel, living (or, at least, foraging) in the area testifies to the safety of the area--from radiation, at any rate. Unwisely, Rusty, perhaps emboldened by the zero reading and the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed rodent, “bent and touched the surface of the generator--if it was a generator.” Although he is wearing protective gloves, the result of his contact is immediate:

A strong shock immediately surged up his arm and through his body. He tried to pull back and couldn’t. His muscles were locked up tight. The Geiger counter gave a single bray, then fell silent. Rusty had no idea whether or not the needle swung into the danger zone, because he couldn’t move his eyes, either. The light was leaving the world, funneling out of it like water going down a bathtub drain, and he thought with sudden clam clarity: I’m going to die. . . (736).
However, Rusty doesn’t die. Instead, he has either a hallucination or makes a telepathic connection, albeit one way, with him as the receiver, with an extraterrestrial race--or so, at least, he believes, seeing “faces.” but not “human faces, and later he would not be sure they were faces at all. They were geometric solids that seemed to be padded in leather” with “diamond shapes on their sides” that “could have been ears.” These “heads--if they were heads--turned to each other. . . In [apparent] discussion,” and Rusty thinks he “heard laughter,” picturing children at play at the local grammar school his daughters attend (735)

Rusty removes his iron apron and lays it over the generator. The metal catches fire, blisters, and disintegrates Despite witnessing the apparent defensive capability of the device and having himself been shocked by it, Rusty, having removed his gloves, seizes the generator in his bare hands, anticipating another shock, a burn, or another telepathic connection to the aliens. Instead, “there was nothing” (737). Despite its relatively small size--a little bigger than the proverbial breadbox--the generator refuses to budge. As Rusty wonders what to do next, he hears a tremendous explosion, looks up, and sees that another airplane, this one a large passenger jet, has crashed into the dome.

As a result of the jet’s crashing into the barrier, the townspeople unite more and more, wearing blue armbands as a sign of their solidarity. This solidarity is necessary, of course, to secure Big Jim Rennie’s political base and power, and it happens just before the selectman gives his speech to the townspeople. In including this scene, King also takes the opportunity to philosophize about human behavior, suggesting that, for approximately fifty percent of a population, long-term trauma encourages acceptance in place of denial. Acceptance, in turn, succumbs to dependency, and dependency gives way to resignation:

Earlier that morning, perhaps fifteen percent of the town was wearing blue “solidarity” armbands; by sundown on this Wednesday in October, it will be twice that. When the sun comes up tomorrow, it will be over fifty percent of the population.
Denial gives way to acceptance; acceptance breeds dependence. Anyone who’s ever cared for a terminal patient will tell you that, too. . . .

They need someone to sit with them when the night is dark and the hours stretch out. They need someone to say, Sleep now, it will be better in the morning. I’m here, so sleep. Sleep now. Sleep and let me take care of everything.

For years, the townspeople of Chester’s Mill have been more or less content, most of the time, to let Big Jim Rennie take charge of their affairs, to look out for the supposed good of the town, to take care of them, both individually and collectively. Now that they are involved in a crisis beyond human reckoning, the townspeople seem prepared to accept his dictatorial leadership, depending upon his strength and courage, despite his corruption. King has set the stage for Big Jim’s gathering of greater and greater power unto himself during his upcoming speech before the accepting, dependent, and resigned citizenry of Chester’s Mill. Big Jim himself knows as much. As he stands outside Town Hall, having hurried forth to see what caused the great explosion that occurred as he was working on his speeches--”one to the cops tonight. . . [and] one to the entire town tomorrow night”--he observes the townspeople “staring up into the sky with their mouths gaped open,” and he thinks, “they looked like sheep dressed in human clothing. Tomorrow night they would crowd into the Town Hall and go baaa baaa baaa, when’ll it get better? And baaa baaa baaa, take care of us until it does. And he would” (741).

Meanwhile, since page 533, Colonel Dale (“Barbie”) Barbara has been in jail on trumped-up assault, rape, and murder charges. Apart from drinking from his toilet bowl, eating cereal upon which his jailers have spat and deposited nasal mucus, and bantering with his captors while he waits for Deputy Jackie Wettington to rescue him, he does precious little. Even before his incarceration, he didn’t do much other than cook at the local restaurant, get into a fight, and quell a riot. All in all, to say that Barbie is a passive protagonist is putting it mildly. Perhaps the fictional version of President Barack Hussein Obama erred in selecting Barbie as his official representative inside the dome. Alternatively, King may be saving Barbie’s heroic feats for the resolution of his massive story. If so, though, one has to wonder, at this point, whether the reader will care.

It is no longer either acceptable to readers from either an artistic standpoint or from a politically correct perspective to characterize dramatic personae on the basis of their physical appearance, so that physically unattractive characters are villains and beautiful people are heroes or heroines, as was the stereotypical practice of days gone by. However, King uses a similar approach, which is both aesthetically and socially acceptable (so far): he uses references to physical organs (his male characters often exhibit fear, for instance, by a tightening of, or a crawling sensation in, their testes and scrota, and, throughout Under the Dome, King references Big Jim’s heart condition--an Achilles’ heel, no doubt--as a means of suggesting his emotional state. An example occurs when he fears that the crashing jet may have been the detonation of an atomic bomb that could destroy the dome before Big Jim would like to have the barrier obliterated and the townspeople rescued. It is only when he understands that the explosion was that of an aircraft rather than a bomb that he begins to relax and his heart rate slows: “Big Jim felt a cautious sense of relief, and his triphammering heart slowed a bit. It was a plane. . . just a plane and not a nuke or some kind of super-missile. . . “ (740). However, when Colonel Cox is slow to get back to him in confirmation of the airliner’s identity, his heart rate again increases: “Big Jim’s heart had been slowing toward its normal speed (if a hundred and twenty beats per minute can be so characterized), but now it sped up again and took one of those looping misbeats. He coughed and pounded his chest. His heart seemed almost to settle, then went into a full-blown arrhythmia” (741). Since the heart symbolizes the spiritual, moral, and emotional aspects of the personality, King has chosen wisely in using Big Jim’s heart condition as a metaphor for his personal, political, and spiritual corruption.

Once again, although King cites George W. Bush and Dick Cheney (who, like Big Jim, has a bad heart) as his models for Big Jim, there are strong parallels in the selectman’s behavior to both President Obama and his chief advisor, Rahm Emmanuel. Like Emmanuel, Big Jim believes in never letting a crisis go to waste, and, like Obama, he uses such situations to further his own political base and personal power, acting in a tyrannical and self-righteous manner, believing that not only does he know what’s best for the town he governs but also that he is doing God’s will in doing so. The arrogance of Emmanuel, Obama, and Big Jim is another striking parallel between the situation “under the dome” and that in present-day America. Big Jim, who sees his fellow townspeople as “sheep,” thinks “Sheep need a shepherd,” and he believes that, “under certain circumstances, panic could be good. Under certain circumstances, it could--like food riots and acts of arson--have a beneficial effect.” (So might such conditions as a worldwide economic meltdown, worsened by runaway spending; a seemingly endless war in Afghanistan; the Gulf oil spill; international terrorism; a porous border and massive illegal immigration; and whatever “crisis” exists or can be invented next, it seems.) Like Obama, who seldom speaks without a carefully prepared speech projected onto a teleprompter, Big Jim also knows the value of prepared speeches. When Colonel Cox pleads with the selectman to make sure that the people of Chester’s Mill understand that the jetliner’s crash was “just an accident,” Big Jim thinks, “They’ll know what I tell them and believe what I want them to” (742).

Are such parallels intentional, showing that King’s political thought processes have matured beyond black-or-white, either-or fallacious form of partisan politics and the playing of an “us” liberals/Democrats against “them” conservatives/Republicans blame game, or are these parallels the result of mere coincidence, suggesting that King remains more an ideologue than an independent thinker? Is it possible that one of the world’s most popular writers hasn’t stretched his own political perspective beyond that of his college years when it was all the rage to “STICK IT TO THE MAN,” as young Joe McClatchey would have had his fellow students do in response to the descent of the dome? Is it possible that King, who shows himself to be fairly astute in his analysis and understanding of human behavior, could be so superficial and stereotypical in his perception of politics? It is possible, of course, but it’s not desirable. According to his own statements, Big Jim is modeled upon President Bush (the son) and Vice-President Chaney. That the same character could easily have been modeled upon President Obama and Rahm Emmanuel should teach King something, if it hasn’t already: the two-party system is more corrupt than Big Jim Rennie, offering little difference between the platforms and, therefore, voters’ alternatives. That’s what the Tea Party and the increasing ranks of moderates and independents without political party affiliation are all about. If it’s not what Under the Dome is all about, let’s hope that, in his next novel, King is sadder but wiser in the ways of the world.

News reaches Rusty from the hospital: both Big Jim, suffering from arrhythmia, and Junior, diagnosed with having a possible brain tumor, have been admitted to the medical facility. On their way back to Chester’s Mill from Black Ridge, Rusty swear his companions to silence concerning his discovery of the dome generator.

Rose Twitchell takes sandwiches to Barbie and, despite Melvin Searles’ presence, Barbie succeeds in relaying a message to his former employer: “Tell her [Deputy Jackie Wettington, who plans to break Barbie out of jail] I said you’re all right” (747), meaning that it’s all right for Jackie to share her secrets with Rose.

Andy Sanders and The Chef smoke methamphetamine while the latter lectures the former, based upon a wild interpretation of the book of Revelation., concerning their roles as “Christian soldiers” in the apocalypse that is to come on Halloween, if not earlier. Both men also vow never to let Big Jim and his cronies shut down their meth lab, as Big Jim has said he will do to get “rid of the evidence” of his illegal operation ((751).

As Barbie was drafted back into the Army as a colonel by presidential order, so is Deputy Jackie Wettington, a former sergeant, who’s been “stop-lossed” and assigned the “twofold” mission of rescuing Barbie from jail and of ousting Big Jim from his office as selectman-become-dictator. King loses this section of his novel by setting the stage for future developments involving a conflict between Barbie and Wettington and their followers and Big Jim and his camp. With Halloween coming early, perhaps, to Chester’s Mill and Rusty Everett’s discovery of the dome generator, things are likely to be lively, despite a relatively passive protagonist, Big Jim’s arrhythmia, and Junior’s glioma. After all, the reader has been warned, “that dead band song” is about to “play.”


lazlo azavaar said...

"King also takes the opportunity to philosophize about human behavior, suggesting that, for approximately fifty percent of a population, long-term trauma encourages acceptance in place of denial. Acceptance, in turn, succumbs to dependency, and dependency gives way to resignation."

Alas, Gary, I fear this is exactly what has befallen us as a nation. ...And the trauma keeps a'coming.

Gary L. Pullman said...

Yes, Lazlo, and not only does King (or his omniscient narrator) know this, but so do characters like Big Jim Rennie.

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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