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Saturday, July 10, 2010

Pink Stars and Theories “Under the Dome”

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

The military has a new approach to taking down the dome: “an experimental acid” that is powerful enough to “burn a hole two miles deep in bedrock.” At 9:00 PM, the “hydrofluoric compound” is to be poured over the dome “where Motton Road crosses. . . Into Harlow,” Colonel Cox tells Julia Shumway, asking her to deliver his message to Colonel Dale (“Barbie”) Barbara.

Unwisely, the Reverend Piper confronts Samantha Bushey’s attackers, Frank DeLesseps, Carter Thibodeau, Melvin Searles, and Georgia Roux, who dislocate her shoulder and shoot her dog, Clover. The commotion attracts diners, including Colonel Dale (“Barbie”) Barbara, who arrive just in time to see the pastor being arrested. Barbie yanks Piper’s arm back into its socket, and the Chief of Police allows her to go to the hospital, ordering her to return tomorrow for questioning: those whom she confronted have accused her of assault, just as she has accused them of raping Samantha Bushey (or in Georgia’s case, accessory to rape).

Physician’s assistant Rusty Everett, meanwhile, confronts Big Jim Rennie concerning how a hospital propane tank has come to be installed in the town hall’s supply shed. Probably, Rusty’s confrontation of Big Jim is no wiser than Piper’s confrontation of Samantha’s attackers. In any case, it gains nothing, for Big Jim says he has no knowledge as to how the propane tank ended up in the town hall’s supply shed, any more than he knows where the rest of the hospital’s surplus propane might be. He interrupts his meeting with Rusty to answer a summons from the police chief, promising to “investigate” the matter that Rusty has raised.

The fall of streaming pink stars occurs, just as the children, during their seizures, foresaw, and King devotes several scenes to this phenomenon, presenting it from the perspectives of various characters to ensure that the event is as spectacular and awe-inspiring to the reader as it is to the residents of Chester’s Mill who witness it. First, the town librarian, Lissa Jamieson, and the newspaper owner and editor Julie Shumway see the fall of the stars, reporting what they observe to Colonel Cox, with whom they are in contact through the dome as the military prepares o douse the barrier with the world’s strongest acid: “they had smeared out of clear focus and turned pink. The Milky Way had turned into a bubblegum spill across the greater dome of the night (433). Twitch grabs Rusty Everett as the physician’s assistant is getting apple juice for his latest patient, the Reverend Piper Libby, and drags him outside the hospital to observe the heavens: “It was filled with blazing pink stars, and may appeared to be falling, leaving long, almost fluorescent trails behind them” (435). Rusty feels a chill along his spine as he recalls that “Judy foresaw this. . . ‘The pink stars are falling in lines’” (436). Likewise, in their borrowed house, Thurston Marshall and Carolyn Sturges, who have assumed custody of the Appleton orphans, Alice and Aidan, witness the falling pink stars that Aidan had also foreseen during his seizure: “Alice and Aidan Appleton were asleep when the pink stars began falling, but Thurston Marshall and Carolyn Sturges weren’t. They stood in the backyard of the Dumagen house and watched them come down in brilliant pink lines. Some of the lines crisscrossed each other, and when this happened, pink runes seemed to stand out in the sky before fading” (436).

The phenomenon might seem paranormal, or even supernatural, but, both Colonel Cox and Thurston Marshall assure their listeners, Julia Shumway and Carolyn Sturges, respectively, that the incident has a natural explanation. “As it comes north,” the colonel tells Julia, “the jet [stream] passes over a lot of cities and manufacturing towns. What it picks up over those locations is collecting on the Dome instead of being whisked north to Canada and the Arctic. There’s enough of it now to have created a kind of optical filter. I’m sure it’s not dangerous” (434). The reader may not be as certain, especially since King touts his novel as a cautionary tale concerning the effects of unbridled environmental pollution. Julia isn’t as certain, either, for she says, “Not yet,” asking, “What about in a week, or a month? Are you going to hose down our airspace at thirty thousand feet when it starts getting dark in here?” Carolyn is also concerned about the falling pink stars. “Is it the end of the world?” she asks Thurston. He assures her that it is not, and that there is a perfectly natural explanation for the phenomenon: “it’s a meteor swarm” that they are “seeing. . . through a film of dust and particulate matter, Pollution, in other words. It’s changed the color” of the swarm. Uh, oh!

There’s one thing that Thurston is unable to answer, though. Carolyn asks him how Aidan could have foreseen this event during his seizure, to which question “Thurston only shook his head” (436). To emphasize the mystery of Aidan’s prophetic vision, Carolyn repeats her question, not once, but twice: “How could he know this was coming? How could he know?”

She gets no answer.

Of course, no one knows where the dome comes from, either, or why it has descended.

King includes two additional scenes in which characters observe the fall of pink stars. Most, if not all of the residents of Chester’s Mill observe the strange phenomenon, including Leo Lamoine, “a faithful member of the late Reverend Coggins’ Holy Redeemer congregation,” who interprets the event as the advent of the Apocalypse; Sloppy Sam Verdreaux, who has been discharged from jail; police officer Rube Libby; Willow and Tommy Anderson; Rose Twitchell and Anson Wheeler, of Sweetbriar Rose’s; Norrie Calvert, Benny Drake, and their parents; Jack Cale, “the current manager of Food City” and Ernie Calvert, “the previous manager”; Stewart and Fernald Bowie, of the local mortuary; Henry Morrison and police officer Jackie Wettington; Chaz Bender, a high school history teacher; Second Selectman Big Jim Rennie; Chief Randolph; First Selectman Andy Sanders; Special Deputies (and rapists) Carter Thibodeau, Melvin Searles, Frank DeLesseps, and Georgia Roux; and widower Jack Evans. Other townspeople sleep through the meteor storm: Rusty Everett’s “Little Js,” Piper Libby, Third Selectman Andrea Grinnell, The Chef, and Brenda Perkins. Curiously, the omniscient narrator informs the reader that “the dead also do not see” the phenomenon, so Myra Evans, Duke Perkins, Chuck Thompson, Claudine Sanders, all of whom are “tucked away in the Bowie Funeral Home”; Dr. Haskell, Mr. Carty, and Rory Disnmore, who are “in the morgue of Catherine Russell Hospital; and Lester Coggins, Dodee Sanders, and Angie McCain, who “are still hanging out in the McCain pantry,” with Junior Rennie seated “between Dodee and Angie, holding their hands” miss the fall of the pink stars,

King’s catalogue of the townspeople, the waking, the sleeping, and the dead alike, is unusual. Not only does it remind the reader of the novel’s larger cast of characters, but it also suggests that the story has reached its turning point. Assembling the entire cast intimates that something portentous looms just ahead. There is an eerie sense of change and doom, created largely through the mentioning of the names of both those the reader has met and those who are yet unfamiliar, as if the narrator were calling the reader’s attention to those who will live, those who may die, and those who have already met their deaths. It is as if the reader is given a final glimpse of Chester Mill’s populace, right before a major cataclysm takes place. Something ominous is about to happen, the falling stars suggest, as does the naming of the names of the townspeople and the suicide of Jack Evans, whose self-inflicted death, the reader is told, “will not be the least” (439).

Suspense is high.

While the stars fall, the military douses the dome with the experimental acid. The dome “eats” the acid, and leaves no residue other than “trace minerals. . . soil and airborne pollutants’: according to the scientists on the scene, “spectrographic analysis” indicates that the dome “isn’t there” (441). The government entertains a number of possible theories as to the barrier’s origin, however, despite their ignorance of its composition: it could be the “creation” of extraterrestrial beings, a genius, “the work of a renegade country,” or even “a living thing,” such as “some kind of E. coli hybrid” (441-442). Julia Shumway offers another possibility: “‘Colonel Cox,” Julia said quietly, ‘are we something’s experiment? Because that’s what I feel like’” (442).

Suspense remains high.

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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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