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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Peculiar Form of Suspense “Under the Dome”

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Julia Shumway and Jackie Wettington have something in common: a crush on Colonel James O. Cox, whom they consider good-looking (Julia) and forceful (Jackie). For her part, Rose Twitchell prefers CNN’s Wolfe Blitzer, who “can,” as far as she’s concerned, “eat crackers in my bed anytime” he wishes (765). King’s own admiration for the journalist is clear, as is his respect for CNN. Everyone, it appears, from the patrons of Dippy’s Roadhouse and the clientele of Sweetbriar Rose restaurant watch the news channel, as does Second Selectman Big Jim Rennie, the novel’s antagonist. Any newscasts that occur during Under the Dome’s action are those that are transmitted by CNN. Even the hospital staff listen to CNN. It’s tuned in, with John Roberts broadcasting, when Rusty Everett has his run-in with Big Jim. Indeed, on the rare occasion that King refers at all to his beloved CNN’s chief rival, FOX News, it is with derision. For example, when one of the FOX News team dares to ask Colonel Cox a question during the press conference that the military man calls, one of King’s characters is delighted to see the journalist put in his place. The colonel has just told the press corps that the Army has “established a no-go-zone around the Dome” because of a concern that “the Dome might have” unrecognized “harmful effects” in addition to the hazards that it is known to possess:

“Are you talking about radiation, Colonel?” someone called.

Cox froze him with a glance, and when he seemed to consider the reporter properly chastised (not Wolfie, Rose was pleased to see, but that half-bald, no-spin yapper from FOX News), he went on (762).
The reader is apt to note, with dismay, that King apparently does believe, after all, in a simple, black-and-white world in which the good guys are his guys (Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper, Barbara Starr, John Roberts) and the bad guys are not. It is regrettable that someone who’s written so many books for so long, about so many issues, albeit through the medium of fiction, rather than as a journalist, would still perceive politics, journalism, social, and military matters in such an unsophisticated manner.

Like his character, Linda Everett, he apparently believes that “there are sides“--two of them--in news reporting, at least, just as it is clear that he has definitely chosen his side. Obviously, King has every right to take sides--Under the Dome is his novel, after all, and its world is his world--but the reader who doesn’t share his biases is apt to resent his arrogance in assuming that CNN is respectable and that FOX News is the home of “yappers.” Moreover, such a reader is likely to wonder how such biases affect the thought processes of his characters, one of whom admits to having an almost romantic crush on Blitzer. Is one reading a liberal/Democrat novel or a non-partisan novel? If it’s not necessary to insert a particular political point of view into the story, one has to wonder why King does so. The term “self-indulgent” comes to mind, as it does, in the reading of such novels as Lisey’s Story and Duma Key. Please, Mr. King, the reader might want to plead, especially if he or she is a moderate, a conservative, an independent, or a Republican, just tell the story; a paean to CNN and the liberal point of view is not needed or particularly desired.

During “CNN BREAKING NEWS,“ Colonel Cox‘s press conference is announced. The colonel has called the conference to make life difficult for Big Jim and to frustrate the selectman’s push for increased political power as he, like Rahm Emmanuel, seeks to take full advantage of the crisis represented by the mysterious dome’s descent over the isolated town of Chester’s Mill, Maine. He does so by announcing a Dome Visitors’ Day and by calling upon Big Jim to answer such questions from the press corps (or from those who are allowed to ask questions), such as whether there are “any plans to add a press conference” (asked by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer); why Big Jim, rather than Colonel Barbara, is in charge under the dome (asked by Wolf Blizer); whether Big Jim would bother to attend such a press conference when he is reportedly involved in criminal activities or “financial mismanagement” (asked by NBC’s Lester Holt); whether it is true that Colonel Barbara has been arrested for serial murders (asked by CBS’ Rita Braver); and whether Barbie could have been “jailed to keep him from taking control as the President ordered” (asked by PBS’ Ray Suarez). (No questions are accepted from FOX News representatives. Apparently, Colonel Cox found the one about radiation impertinent.)

Following the press conference that Julia, Jackie, Rose, and others of Barbie’s supporters watch at Sweetbriar Rose, King’s omniscient narrator transports the reader to the jail, where Barbie is allowed to interact with Deputy Manuel Ortega, lest the reader forget completely about the passive protagonist. In this scene, Barbie comes off as even weaker and more ineffective than he has seemed so far. In fact, during the scene when he was shown as willing to drink from the cell’s toilet bowl rather than to faint from dehydration and the omniscient narrator shared with the reader Barbie’s past training in black ops, hand-to-hand combat, and interrogation techniques, referencing his service in Iraq, Barbie, who single-handedly bested four tough thugs in the parking lot outside Dippy’s Roadhouse, seemed as rough and ready as John Rambo.

Since then, however, much of the military toughness of the colonel has seemingly dulled. He’s been in jail since page 533, mostly being verbally and physically abused and subjected to the childish pranks of his jailers (who have salted his drinking water, for example, and contaminated his cereal with spit and boogers). He’s succeeded in very little otherwise, except to have stashed his pocketknife inside his bunk’s mattress. During this scene, Ortega, upset by Colonel Cox’s press conference (and, no doubt, by Wolf Blitzer’s questions), threatens Barbie with his .45, leaving Barbie shaken and sweating: “Barbie leaned back against the wall and let out a breath. There was sweat on his forehead. The hand he lifted to wipe it off was shaking” (768).

Barbie looks weaker yet because of the reader’s inevitable comparison of him, the passive protagonist, with Big Jim Rennie, the active antagonist. While, it may be argued, Barbie is--or can be--tough and is courageous, and that he has advanced hand-to-hand and perhaps martial arts skills, he seems to lack the passion for goodness that Big Jim has for evil. Big Jim is a determined, relentless adversary, who uses imagination, audacity, and intelligence to pursue his goals. He is also courageous and resourceful, organized and efficient, confident and defiant. A natural leader, Big Jim commands loyalty, inspires both respect and fear, and exhibits political acumen. Although he is contemptuous of others, seeing them as weak or dependent and he is involved in crime, including not only the manufacture and distribution of methamphetamine, but also murder, Big Jim inspires the reader’s grudging respect in the same way that a Mafia godfather or a third-world strongman might do. He is glamorous, impressive, and powerful, a commanding figure with genuine presence. The passive Barbie, although he has shown that he can fight and is mentally tough as well as physically strong, doesn’t seem to be nearly as imposing as the villainous Big Jim.

Barbie comes off even less heroic when his passivity is juxtaposed to physician assistant Rusty Everett’s confrontation with Big Jim Rennie as he checks on his patient’s condition following Big Jim’s admittance to the hospital for treatment of his arrhythmia. Rusty has already confronted Big Jim once, in the selectman’s office, demanding an account as to what became of the propane that was stolen from the hospital, extracting from Big Jim the promise to investigate the matter, which, along with Big Jim’s decision to shut down his illegal drug operation, results in the return of two stolen tanks. Now, the courageous, if naïve, Rusty confronts the politician about a much more serious matter, declaring “I know you killed Coggins” (778), telling him about the baseball stitch marks he has seen on the Reverend Coggins’ face, which match those on the gold-plated baseball in Big Jim’s office, and demanding that Big Jim and Andy Sanders “step down” and allow Third Selectman Andrea Grinnell to “take over” the government of Chester’s Mill. However, Rusty crosses the line, morally and legally, when he threatens to withhold lifesaving medication from his patient if Big Jim refuses to “step down.” Unfortunately, Rusty is no match for his unscrupulous and murderous foe, who has concealed Deputy Freddy Denton and his bodyguard Special Deputy Carter Thibodeau in his hospital room’s bathroom. Having heard Rusty threaten to withhold the drugs that would keep Big Jim alive unless the politician agrees to resign from office, they are able to charge Rusty with extortion. In addition, they add the trumped-up charges of resisting arrest and attempted murder. They also allege that their prisoner, Colonel Barbara, or “Barbie,” “put him up to it” (782). After ordering Freddy to retrieve his cellular telephone, which Rusty had pocketed, Big Jim steps on Rusty’s left hand, seemingly breaking three of his fingers. (Actually, they are dislocated, although the fifth metacarpal of his hand is broken.) The physician’s assistant is then jailed, three cells down from Barbie, and the contrast between the assertive medic and the passive soldier is made even more striking, as, despite extreme pain, Rusty pulls his dislocated fingers, except for the pinkie, back into place, even managing to joke about his condition as he does so, saying he needs to “fix” his middle finger, as he “may need it” to flip off Big Jim and his cronies (788). Although Rusty no doubt acted rashly, both times that he confronted Big Jim (as he did when he seized the dome genberator), he has hardly made the situation any worse than it already is. The question is whether Barbie, jailed for over 250 pages now, has made anything better.

In any case, concerned that the jail is bugged, Barbie mouths the news to Rusty that, tomorrow night, a rescue is to be mounted, intelligence of which Rusty is already aware. Barbie adds, still mouthing the words, that they will require a safe house in which to stay following their escape, and Rusty thinks that, “thanks to Joe McClatchey and his friends. . . he had that part covered” (789).

King is a master storyteller with a long history of writing bestsellers, so it seems unlikely that he would be unaware of the apparent passivity of his jailed soldier. Barbie was promoted to the rank of colonel as the president’s “inside man.” He has displayed impressive combat skills in his fight against the four thugs who attacked him outside Dippy’s Roadhouse. He can be resourceful (he hid his pocketknife inside the jailhouse bunk’s mattress and drinks from a toilet bowl), and he is trained in close combat, interrogation, and black ops skills. He is respected by Colonel Cox, a “forceful” man. However, King’s having kept him in jail for a fourth of his novel, wherein he’s the frequent butt of jokes and jibes and has been physically assaulted and threatened with death on several occasions as well, makes Barbie seem more pitiful than admirable, as does Rusty’s manly, take-charge conduct, juxtaposed to Barbie’s apparent acquiescence to his foes. It will take extreme acts of heroism before the end of the story for Barbie to redeem himself as the hero whose past training, experience, and action has led the reader to believe he is capable of being. Perhaps King can pull it off. After all, he is a master storyteller with a long history of writing bestsellers. Still, the reader wonders, which is, in its own way, another, if rather peculiar, form of suspense.


lazlo azavaar said...

While no fan of George Bush myself, I think Bush Derangement Syndrome has twisted and skewed alot of otherwise smart people into all kinds of pitiful extremes. The King of old would have had no patience for it. Indeed, in Danse Macabre, he chides Harlan Ellison for a story that was too much of an ad for environmentalism. "I prefer my fiction without billboards." he wrote. Yet, starting with Lisey's Story, where there are two distinct Bush-bashing diatribes that come out of the blue without any connection to the story or character-development(the second one out of the mouth of a character that's been otherwise mentally unstable heretofore), King's had no problems with delivering fiction with billboards.
Sorry for the rant, Gary. Keep up the good work.

Gary L. Pullman said...

I am not a Bush fan, either, Lazlo, but I do resent King's ongoing diatribe against conservatives, Bush, Chaney, and Republicans and his continuous endorsements of liberals, Obama, and Democrats, which, I believe, cheapens his novel in more than one way (see my next post). I would prefer to read a non-partisan story wherein politics are included only when it is necessary to the story itself. King seems to have become an apologist for the left, of which he is a member, as if he expects everyone else to share his thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and values. I still love his fiction, but I could do without all the politicking. I think many others might agree with me on this matter.

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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