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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Plodding on “Under the Dome”

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

In case the reader missed it, Stephen King once again has one of the characters of Under the Dome remind him or her that, now that Chester’s Mill has been isolated by the descent of a mysterious transparent dome, pretty much anything is possible. In answer to Julia Shumway’s question as to whether the town’s police force is likely to close down the publication of her newspaper, the novel’s hero, Dale (“Barbie”) Barbara, replies, “That’s not going to happen.” However, the omniscient narrator suggests that it may happen, that anything may happen: “But he wondered. If this went on long enough, he supposed every day in Chester’s Mill would become Anything Can Happen Day” (226).

Quite a few things do happen. After Rory Dinsmore blinds himself in an attempt to shatter the dome with a high-powered rifle shot, he dies in the operating room. His death is followed, thirty four minutes later, by that of the hospital’s chief surgeon, who dies of a heart attack. By presidential order, Barbie is drafted back into the Army and promoted to the rank of colonel. He is told to declare martial law and seize authority from the local government’s representatives, Second Selectman Big Jim Rennie included. Barbie convinces Brenda, the late police chief’s wife, to help him gain access to the town hall’s fallout shelter so that he can steal the Geiger counter stored therein , and she volunteers to assemble a contingent of others, herself and Third Selectman Andrea Grinnell joining Barbie to announce the news to the other selectmen.

And, oh, yes, the military has decided to launch a Cruise missile at the dome at 1300 hours (1:00 in the afternoon, civilian time); it is preprogrammed to impact against the barrier at an elevation of five feet just “where the Dome cuts Little Bitch Road” (249). The expected outcome? Either the missile will be repelled by the dome or much of the town will be obliterated, along with the dome itself.

Second Selectman Rennie (“Big Jim”) reluctantly accepts the president’s appointment of Colonel Dale Barbara (“Barbie”) as his “man on the spot,” and the commander-in-chief’s orders that Big Jim cooperate fully with Barbara--at least until Big Jim learns whether the missile will destroy the dome, as the military hopes.

Four of the town’s newly deputized special deputies, Mel Searles, Frankie DeLesseps, Carter Thibodeau, and Georgia Roux, visit Samantha (“Sammy”) Bushey, a woman whom DeLesseps claims sassed him earlier that day. Their ostensible mission is to teach Sammy to respect the police. In reality, they come to assault her, both physically and sexually.

Later that night, “Big Jim” murders the Reverend Lester Coggins when, taking Rory Disnmore’s blindness as a sign from God that he must confess his sins--and those of Big Jim--namely, their operation of a methamphetamine lab behind their church. Big Jim is assisted, after the fact, by his son Junior, who wraps the pastor’s corpse in a tarpaulin and secretes it with the bodies of Junior’s own victims, Angie McCain and Dodee Sanders. Ironically, Big Jim decides that he and his partners in crime should shut down their meth lab until the dome is destroyed.

Most of this section of the novel is devoted to chronicling the sociopolitical and emotional effects of the isolation that has descended upon the town of Chester’s Mill in the form of the transparent dome. However, this novel seems to represent a departure of sorts in the thinking of its author. Previously, King, a self-avowed liberal who enthusiastically supports left-wing causes and appears to consider the Republican party just short of demonic, seems to take a more moderate approach to politics. His protagonist’s major supporter is the Republican owner and editor of the local newspaper, Julia Shumway, whom King depicts as intelligent, fearless, and tenacious. On more than a few occasions, her fast thinking, courageous resistance to Big Jim Rennie saves Dale Barbara from being jailed or worse, and she is intent upon publishing the truth concerning both the events which transpire outside and inside the dome.

Published in January 2010, Under the Dome appeared before the Gulf Oil crisis that has tested Barack Hussein Obama’s competence in responding to a catastrophe even larger and more destructive than Hurricane Katrina. President Bush’s response to the latter was poor, to say the least, but most critics, including many Democrats, agree that President Obama’s response to the former has been much worse. The question of Obama’s competence as commander-in-chief is important to Under the Dome, an ecological novel, because it is President Obama who assumes command of the situation that is central to the novel--freeing the citizens of Chester’s Mill, Maine, from the mysterious barrier that has cut them off from the rest of the world. As King makes clear, the president who signs the executive order drafting and promoting Dale Barbara to U. S. Army colonel and putting him in charge as the federal government’s liaison with the local civilian authorities is signed by “the bastard. . . himself. . . using all three of his names, including the terrorist one in the middle [i. e., Hussein]” (270).

In the novel, Obama’s solution is to fire a Cruise missile at the dome. Given the outcome of Rory Dinsmore’s firing of his high-powered rifle at the barrier (the loss of his eye to a ricocheting bullet and no harm at all to the dome), Obama’s solution seems ill-advised, and, if it doesn’t work, Second Selectman Big Jim Rennie has sworn to take the president’s failure as an indication that he himself needs to retain authority. “It may work,” he agrees with Third Selectman Andrea Grinnell. On the other hand, he declares,

“if it doesn’t we’re on our own, and a commander in chief who can’t help his citizens isn’t worth a squirt of warm pee in a cold chamber pot, as far as I’m concerned! If it doesn’t work, and if they don’t blow us all to Glory, somebody is going to have to take hold in this town. Is it going to be some drifter the President taps with his magic wand, or is it going to be the elected officials already in place? (277).
For Big Jim, the value of a leader lies in his or her ability to protect the people he serves, much as the chieftain of a band of warriors‘ value--and authority (as in Beowulf, for example)--lies in his ability to protect and conquer: “Do you know what a commander is, Andrea? Someone who merits loyalty and obedience because he can provide the resources to help those in need. It’s supposed to be a fair trade” (277).

It will be interesting to see whether the Cruise missile attack succeeds or fails. In the novel, as in actual life, much of President Obama’s title to “loyalty and obedience” seems to be predicated upon his ability to “provide the resources to help those in need.” Many consider his response to the Gulf Oil crisis conclusive proof that Obama lacks this ability, and the looming November election promises to unseat many incumbent Congressmen and Senators, especially of the Democratic persuasion, who support President Obama. If the fictional Obama’s handling of the dome crisis parallels his handling of the Gulf Oil crisis, it seems safe to say that Big Jim Rennie won’t be stepping down as one of “the elected officials already in place” in Chester’s Mill, Maine.

Whatever happens next in Under the Dome, this much, at least, seems fairly clear: like the rest of the country and its citizenry, King seems to have moved more toward the middle of the political spectrum, which is distrustful of politicians in general, at every level of authority, and he appears to consider Republicans human rather than demonic and Democrats as perhaps capable of the corruption, dishonesty, and abuse that, heretofore, he has reserved for members of the Grand Old Party.

So far, Christian fundamentalism hasn’t fared as well. With King’s bias against it in full swing, as shown by his characterization of the Reverend Lester Coggins as a primitive believer given to self-flagellation (with a Bible, no less) and the seeking after signs as well as hypocrisy, self-delusion, and even criminal activity. Whether the Congo Church and its pastor will fare any better than the leader of Christ the Holy Redeemer Church remains to be seen.

On page 342, the Cruise missile explodes against the dome, with the result that the reader has anticipated. (The book is, after all, 1,074 pages; if the missile had destroyed the dome, I would have ended within a few pages after 342). King’s description of the failure is cool, though:
They heard it come: a growing otherworldly hum from the western edge of town, a mmmm that rose to MMMMMM in a space of seconds. On the big-screen TV they saw almost nothing, until half an hour later, long after the missile had failed. For those still remaining in the roadhouse, Benny Drake was able to slow the recording down until it was advancing frame by frame. They saw the missile come slewing around what was known as Little Bitch Bend. It was no more than four feet off the ground, almost kissing its own blurred shadow. In the next frame, the Fasthawk, tipped with a blast-fragmentation warhead designed to explode on contact was frozen midair about where the Marines’ bivouac had been.

In the next frames, the screen filled with a white so bright it made the watchers shade their eyes. Then, as the white began to fade, they saw the missile fragments--so many black dashes against the diminishing blast--and a huge scorch mark where the red X [on the dome] had been. The missile had hit its spot exactly.

A second Cruise missile is followed, with the same result.

Obviously, the military’s solution to the problem represented by Chester’ Mill’s isolation beneath the mysterious barrier, which the president (a fictitious version of Barack Hussein Obama) approved, has failed, which makes an earlier scene between Second Selectman Big Jim Rennie, newspaper editor Julie Shumway, and Colonel Dale (“Barbie”) Barbara all the more ominous, for, in the brief exchange between them, when Big Jim sought to shut down the videocam link by which the missile’s impact was delivered to his constituents, the people of Chester’s Mill, as they looked on from the safe distance of the Dipper’s nightclub, the selectman threatened both Shumway and Barbara.

Now that the missile has failed to solve the problem of the dome, the reader can count upon Big Jim to carry out his threat. If the plot seems a bit too contrived and predictable, it’s probably too late for many readers to discontinue the narrative at this point, 343 pages into the story. However, one begins to wonder whether the novel can deliver on its association with Lord of the Flies or do justice to its exploration of the half dozen or so issues it has raised.

There’s but one way to know, and that’s to plod on. . . .

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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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